An Abode of Ravens:
When No Men Died
Four years passed and no one died. Not of violence or hazard of the calling, anyway. Otto and Hagop did pass on within days of each other, of natural causes associated with aging, last year. A few weeks ago one Tam Duc, recruit in training, perished of the overconfident exuberance of youth. He fell into a crevasse while he and his lance brothers were riding their blankets down the long slick slope of the Tien Myuen glacier. There were a few others. But not a one by an unfriendly hand.
Four years has to be a record, though not the sort often recalled in these Annals.
That much peace is impossible to believe.
Peace that prolonged becomes increasingly seductive.
Many of us are old and tired and retain no youthful fire in the belly. But us old farts are not in charge anymore. And though we were prepared to forget horror, horror was not as accomodating toward us.
In those days the Company was in service to its own name. We recognized no master. We counted the warlords of Hsien as our allies. They feared us. We were supernatural, many recalled from the dead, the ultimate Stone Soldiers. They dreaded the chance that we might take sides in their squabbles over the bones of Hsien, that once-mighty empire the Nyueng Bao recall as the Land of Unknown Shadows.
The more idealistic warlords have hopes of us. The mysterious File of Nine provide arms and money and let us recruit because they hope we can be manipulated into helping them restore the golden age that existed before the Shadowmasters enslaved their world so cruelly that its people still call themselves the Children of the Dead.
There is no chance we will participate. But we permit them the hope, the illusion. We have to get strong. We have a mission of our own.
By standing still we have caused the blossoming of a city. A once-chaotic encampment has become ordered and has acquired names, Outpost or the Bridgehead among those who came from beyond the plain and what translates as Abode of Ravens amongst the Children of the Dead. The place keeps growing. It has generated scores of permanent structures. It is in the processing of acquiring a wall. The main street is being paved with cobblestones.
Sleepy likes to keep everyone busy. She cannot stand a loafer. The Children of the Dead will inherit a treasure when we finally go away.
An Abode of Ravens:
When the Baobhas Sang
Boom! Boom! Somebody hammered on my door. I glanced at Lady. She had stayed up late last night and so had fallen asleep while studying this evening. She was determined to discover all the secrets of Hsien magic and to help Tobo harness the startlingly plentiful supernatural manifestations of this world. Not that Tobo needed much help anymore.
This world has more real phantoms and marvellous beings hiding in the bushes and behind the rocks and trees and on the edge of night than any twenty generations of our own frightened peasants could imagine. They gravitate toward Tobo as though he is some sort of nightside messiah. Or amusing pet, maybe.
Boom! Boom! I would have to get off my butt myself. That looked like a long, hard trek over there.
Boom! Boom! “Come on, Croaker! Wake up!” The door swung inward as my visitor invited himself inside. The very devil of my thoughts.
“Didn’t you hear the baobhas singing?”
“I heard a racket. Your friends are always kicking up a fuss about something. I don’t pay any attention anymore.”
“When the baobhas sing it means somebody is going to die. And there’s been a cold wind off the plain all day and Big Ears and Golden-Eye have been extremely nervous and... it’s One-Eye, sir. I just went over to talk to him. He looks like he’d had another stroke.”
“Shit. Let me get my bag.” No surprise, One-Eye suffering a stroke. That old fart has been trying to sneak out on us for years. Most of the vinegar went out of him back when we lost Goblin.
The kid loved that old shit-disturber. Sometimes it seemed like One-Eye was what he wanted to be when he grew up. In fact, it seemed Tobo venerated everybody but his own mother, though the friction between them diminished as he aged. He had matured considerably since my latest resurrection.
“I’m hurrying as fast as I can, Your Grace. This old body doesn’t have the spring it did in the olden days.”
“Physician, heal thyself.”
“Believe me, kid, I would if I could. If I had my druthers I’d be twenty-three years old for the rest of my life. Which would last another three thousand years.”
“That wind off the plain. It has Uncle worried, too.”
“Doj is always worried about something. What does your father say?”
“He and Mom are still at Khang Phi visiting Master Santaraksita.”
At a tender twenty Tobo is akeady the most powerful sorcerer in all this world. Lady says he might possibly become a match for her in her prime. Scary. But he has parents he calls Mom and Dad still. He has friends he treats like people, not objects. He accords his teachers respect and honor instead of devouring them just to prove that he is stronger. His mother raised him well, despite having done so in the environment of the Black Company. And despite his innate rebellious streak. I hope he will remain a decent human being once he comes into his full powers.
My wife does not believe that is possible. She is a pessimist about character. She insists that power corrupts. Inevitably. She has only her own history by which to judge. And she sees only the dark side of everything. Even so, she remains one of Tobo’s teachers. Because, despite her bleak outlook, she retains the silly romantic streak that brought her here with me.
I did not try to keep up with the boy. Time definitely has slowed me. And has left me with an ache for every one of the thousands of miles this battered old corpse has trudged. And it has equipped me with an old man’s talent for straying off the subject.
The boy never stopped chattering about the Black Hounds, fees, hobs and hobyahs and other creatures of the night that I have never seen. Which is all right. The few he has brought around have all been ugly, smelly, surly, and all too eager to copulate with humans of any sex or sexuality. The Children of the Dead claim that yielding is not a good idea. So far discipline has held.
The evening was chill. Both moons were up. Little Boy was full. The sky was totally clear except for a circling owl being pestered by what appeared to be a brace of night-flying rooks. One of those, in turn, had some smaller black bird skipping along behind it, darting in and out as it prosecuted reprisals for some corvine trangression. Or just for the hell of it, the way my sister-in-law would do.
Likely none of the flyers were actual birds.
A huge something loomed beyond the nearest house. It made snorting noises and shuffled away. What I made out looked vaguely like the head of a giant duck. The earliest of the conquering Shadowmasters had possessed a bizarre turn of humor. This big, slow, goofy thing was a killer. Among the worst of the others were a giant beaver, a crocodile with eight legs and a pair of arms and many variations of the themes of killer cattle, horses and ponies, most of which spend their daytimes hiding underwater.
The most bizarre beings were created by the nameless Shadowmaster now recalled as the First One or the Master of Time. His raw material had consisted of shadows off the glittering plain, which in Hsien are known as the Host of the Unforgiven Dead. It seems appropriate that Hsien be called the Land of Unknown Shadows.
A long feline roar ripped the night. That would be Big Ears or his sister Cat Sith. By the time I reached One-Eye’s place the Black Hounds had begun to vocalize, too.
One-Eye’s house was scarcely a year old. The little wizard’s friends raised it after they completed their own places. Before that One-Eye and his girlfriend, Tobo’s grandmother Gota, lived in an ugly, smelly little stick-and-mud hut. The new place was of mortared stone. It had a first rate thatch roof above its four large rooms, one of which concealed a still. One-Eye might be too old and feeble to weasel his way into the local black market but I am sure he will continue distilling strong spirits till the moment his own spirit departs his wizened flesh. The man is dedicated.
Gota kept the house spotless via the ancient device of bullying her daughter Sahra into doing the housework. Gota, still called the Troll by the old hands, was as feeble as One-Eye. They were a matched pair in their passion for potent beverages. When One-Eye gave up the ghost he would be drawing a gill of the hard stuff for his honey.
Tobo poked his head back outside. “Hurry up!”
“Know who you’re talking to, boy? The former military dictator of all the Taglias.”
The boy grinned, no more impressed than anyone else is these days. “Used to be” is not worth the breeze on which it is scribbled.
I tend to philosophize about that, probably a little too much. Once upon a time I was nothing and had no ambition to be anything more. Circumstance conspired to put immense power into my hands. I could have ripped the guts out of half a world had that been my inclination. But I let other obsessions drive me. So I am here on the far side of the circle, where I started, scraping wounds, setting bones and scribbling histories nobody is likely to read. Only now I am a lot older and crankier. I have buried all the friends of my youth except One-Eye...
I ducked into the old wizard’s house.
The heat was ferocious. One-Eye and Gota had trouble keeping warm even in summer. Though summers in southern Hsien seldom become hot.
I stared. “You sure he’s in trouble?”
Tobo said, “He tried to tell me something. I didn’t understand so I came for you. I was afraid.” Him. Afraid.
One-Eye was seated in a rickety chair he had built for himself. He was motionless but things stirred in the corners of the room, usually only visible at the edge of my eye. Snail shells cluttered the floor. Tobo’s father, Murgen, calls them brownies after little folk recalled from his youth. There had to be twenty different races of them around, from no bigger than a thumb to half a man high. They really did do work when nobody was looking. That drove Sleepy crazy. It meant she had to work harder to think up chores to keep the Company’s villains out of trouble.
An overpowering stench pervaded One-Eye’s house. It came from the mash for his still.
The devil himself looked like a shrunken head the shrinker had not bothered to separate from its body. One-Eye was a little bit of a thing. Even in his prime he had not been big. At two hundred and some years old, with both legs and most of one arm in the grave, he looked more like a shriveled monkey than a human being.
I said, “I hear tell you’re trying to get some attention again, old man.” I knelt. One-Eye’s one eye opened. It focused on me. Time had been kind in that respect. His vision remained good.
He opened his toothless mouth. At first nothing came out. He tried to raise a mahogany spider of a hand. He did not have the strength.
Tobo shuffled his feet and muttered at the things in the corners. There are ten thousand strange things infesting Hsien and he knows every one by name. And they all worship him. For me this intersection with the hidden world has been the most troubling development of our stay in the Land of Unknown Shadows.
I liked them better when they were still unknown.
Outside Skryker or Black Shuck or another Black Hound began raising a racket. Others replied. The uproar moved southward, toward the shadowgate. I willed Tobo to go investigate.
He stayed put, all questions and nags. He was about to become a major pain in the ass. “How’s your grandmother?” I asked. Preemptive strike. “Why don’t you check?” Gota was not in the room. Usually she was, determinedly trying to do for One-Eye even though she had grown as feeble as he was.
One-Eye made a noise, moved his head, tried to raise that hand again. He saw the boy leave the room. His mouth opened. He managed to force out words in little bursts. “Croaker. This is the... last... She’s done. I feel it. Coming. Finally.”
I did not argue with him, did not question him. My error. We had been through similar scenes a half dozen times. His strokes were never quite fatal. It seemed fate had some last role for him in the grand design.
Whatever, he had to work his way through his standard soliloquy. He had to warn me against hubris because he could not get it into his head that not only am I no longer the Liberator, the military dictator of all the Taglias; I have abdicated claim to captaincy of the Black Company. The Captivity did not leave me rational enough for that task. Nor had my understudy, Murgen, come through sufficiently unscathed. The burden now rests upon Sleepy’s sturdy little shoulders.
And One-Eye had to ask me to look out for Gota and Tobo. Over and over he would remind me to watch out for Goblin’s wicked tricks even though we had lost Goblin years ago.
I suspect that, should there be any afterlife at all, those two will meet up about six seconds after One-Eye croaks and they will pick up their feud right where they left it in life. In fact, I am a little surprised Goblin has not been around haunting One-Eye. He threatened to often enough.
Maybe Goblin just cannot find him. Some of the Nyueng Bao say they feel lost because the shades of their ancestors cannot find them to watch over them and give advice inside their dreams.
Kina cannot find us, either, apparently. Lady has not had a bad dream in years.
Or maybe Goblin killed her.
One-Eye beckoned with one desiccated finger. “Closer.”
Kneeling in front of him, opening my kit, I was about as close as I could get. I took his wrist. His pulse was weak and rapid and irregular. I did not get the impression that he had suffered a stroke.
He murmured, “I am not. A fool. Who doesn’t know. When he is. And what. Has happened. You listen! You watch out. For Goblin. Little Girl. And Tobo. Didn’t see him dead. Left him with. Mother of Deceit.”
“Shit!” That never occurred to me. I was not there. I was still one of the Captured when Goblin stuck the sleeping Goddess with the standard. Only Tobo and Sleepy had witnessed that. And anything they knew had to be suspect. Kina was the Queen of Deceivers. “A good idea, old man. Now, what do I have to do to get you to get up and fetch me a drink?”
Then I started as something that looked like a small black rabbit peeked at me from under One-Eye’s chair. This was a new one. I could call Tobo. He would know what it was. There are uncounted varieties of the things, huge and small, some gentle and many definitely not. They just gravitate toward Tobo. In only a few cases, generally involving the most disagreeable sorts, has he taken Lady’s advice and bound them to his personal service.
The Children of the Dead worry about Tobo. Having suffered a few hundred years under the heels of the Shadowmasters they are paranoid about outsider sorcerers.
So far the warlords have remained reasonable. None of them want to spark the ire of the Soldiers of Darkness. That might cause the Company to align itself with a rival. Status quo and balance of force are cherished and jealously nurtured by the File of Nine. Terrible chaos followed the expulsion of the last Shadowmaster. None of the warlords want the chaos to return, though what Hsien has now resembles nothing so much as lightly organized anarchy. But not a one is willing to yield a minimum of power to another authority, either.
One-Eye grinned, revealing dark gums. “Not going to. Trick me. Captain.”
“I’m not the Captain anymore. I’m retired. I’m just an old man who pushes paper as an excuse to keep hanging around with the living. Sleepy is the boss.”
“I’m about to manage your scruffy old ass...” I trailed off. His eye had closed. He made a statement by beginning to snore.
Another hoot and holler arose outside, some close by, more far away toward the shadowgate. The snail shells creaked and rustled and, though I never saw a one touched by anything, rocked and spun around. Then I heard the distant bray of a horn.
I rose and retreated, not turning my back. One-Eye’s lone remaining pleasure—other than staying drunk—was tripping the unwary with his cane.
Tobo reappeared. He looked ghastly. “Captain... Croaker. Sir. I misunderstood what he tried to tell me.”
“It wasn’t him. It was Nana Gota.”
An Abode of Ravens:
A Labor of Love
Tobo’s grandmother, Ky Gota, had died happy. As happy as the Troll could die, which was drunker than three owls drowned in a wine cask. She had enjoyed a vast quantity of extremely high-potency product before she went. I told the boy, “If it’s any consolation she probably didn’t know a thing.” Although the evidence suggested she knew exactly what was happening.
I did not fool him. “She knew it was coming. The Greylings were here.” Something behind the still chittered softly in reponse to the sound of his voice. Like the baobhas, the greylings are a harbinger of death. One of a great many in Hsien. Some of the things that had been howling in the wilderness earlier would have been, too.
I said the things you say to the young. “It was probably a blessing. She was in constant pain and there was nothing I could do for her anymore.” The old woman’s body had been a torment to her for as long as I had known her. Her last few years had been hell.
For a moment Tobo looked like a sad little boy who wanted to bury his face in his mother’s skirt and shed some tears. Then he was a young man whose control was complete again. “She did live a long life and a fulfilled one, no matter how much she complained. The family owes One-Eye for that.”
Complain she had, often and loudly, to everyone about everything and everyone else. I had been fortunate enough to miss much of the Gota era by having gotten myself buried alive for a decade and a half. Such a clever man am I. “Speaking of family, you’ll have to find Doj. And you’d better send word to your mother. And as soon as you can you’ll need to let us know about funeral arrangements.” Nyueng Bao funerary customs seem almost whimsical. Sometimes they bury their dead, sometimes they burn them, sometimes they wrap them and hang them in trees. The rules are unclear.
“Doj will make the arrangements. I’m sure the Community will demand something traditional. In which case my place is somewhere out of the way.”
The Community consists of those Nyueng Bao associated with the Black Company who have not enlisted formally and who have not yet disappeared into the mysterious reaches of the Land of Unknown Shadows.
“No doubt.” The Community are proud of Tobo but custom demands that they look down on him for his mixed blood and lack of respect for tradition. “Others will need to know, too. This’ll be a time of great ceremony. Your grandmother is the first female from our world to pass away over here. Unless you count the white crow.” Old Gota seemed much less formidable in death.
Tobo’s thoughts were moving obliquely to mine. “There’ll be another crow, Captain. There’ll always be another crow. They feel at home around the Black Company.” Which is why the Children of the Dead call our town the Abode of Ravens. There are always crows, real or unknown.
“They used to stay fat.”
The unknown shadows were all around us now. I could see them easily myself, though seldom clearly and seldom for more than an instant. Moments of intense emotion draw them out of the shells where Tobo taught them to hide.
A renewed racket arose outside. The little darknesses stirred excitedly, then scattered, somehow disappearing without ever revealing what they were. Tobo said, “The dreamwalkers must be hanging around on the other side of the shadowgate again.”
I did not think so. This evening’s racket was different.
An articulate cry came from the room where we had left One-Eye. So the old man had been faking his snooze after all. “I’d better see what he wants. You get Doj.”
“You don’t believe it.” The old man was agitated now. He was angry enough to speak clearly, without much huffing and puffing. He threw up a hand. One wrinkled, twisted ebony digit pointed at something only he could see. “The doom is coming, Croaker. Soon. Maybe even tonight.” Something outside howled as if to strengthen his argument but he did not hear it.
The hand fell. It rested for several seconds. Then it rose again, one digit indicating an ornate black spear resting on pegs above the doorway. “It’s done.” He had been crafting that death tool for a generation. Its magical power was strong enough for me to sense whenever I considered it directly. Normally I am deaf, dumb and blind in that area. I married my own personal consultant. “You run into. Goblin. Give him. The spear.”
“I should just hand it over?”
“My hat, too.” One-Eye showed me a toothless grin. For the entirety of my time with the Company he had worn the biggest, ugliest, dirtiest, most disreputable black felt hat imaginable. “But you got. To do it. Right.” So. He still had one practical joke to pull even though it would be on a dead man and he would be dead himself long before it could happen.
There was a scratch at the door. Someone entered without awaiting invitation. I looked up. Doj, the old swordmaster and priest of the Nyueng Bao Community. Associated with the Company but not of it for twenty-five years now. I do not entirely trust him even after so long. I seem to be the only doubter left, though.
Doj said, “The boy said Gota...”
I gestured. “Back there.”
He nodded understanding. I would focus on One-Eye because I could do nothing for the dead. Nor all that much for One-Eye, I feared. Doj asked, “Where is Thai Dei?”
“At Khang Phi, I assume. With Murgen and Sahra.”
He grunted. “I’ll send someone.”
“Let Tobo send some of his pets.” That would get some of them out from under foot—and have the additional consequence of reminding the File of Nine, the master council of warlords, that the Stone Soldiers enjoy unusual resources. If they could detect those entities at all.
Doj paused at the doorway to the back. “There’s something wrong with those things tonight. They’re like monkeys when there’s a leopard on the prowl.”
Monkeys we know well. The rock apes haunting the ruins lying where Kiaulune stands in our own world are as pesky and numerous as a plague of locusts. They are smart enough and deft enough to get into anything not locked up magically. And they are fearless. And Tobo is too soft of heart to employ his supernatural friends in a swift educational strike.
Doj vanished through the doorway. He remained spry although he was older than Gota. He still ran through his fencing rituals every morning. I knew by direct observation that he could defeat all but a handful of his disciples using practice swords. I suspect the handful would be surprised unpleasantly if the duel ever involved real steel.
Tobo is the only one as talented as Doj. But Tobo can do anything, always with grace and usually with ridiculous ease. Tobo is the child we all think we deserve.
One-Eye murmured, “What?”
“Just thinking how my baby grew up.”
“Like a broken broom handle pounded up the shit chute.”
“You should. Learn to appreciate. Cosmic. Practical jokes.”
The cosmos was spared my rancor. The street door opened to someone even less formal than Uncle Doj. Willow Swan invited himself inside. “Shut it quick!” I snapped. “That moonlight shining off the top of your head is blinding me.” I could not resist. I recalled him when he was a young man with beautiful long blond hair, a pretty face and a poorly disguised lust for my woman.
Swan said, “Sleepy sent me. There’re rumors.”
“Stay with One-Eye. I’ll deliver the news myself.”
Swan bent forward. “He breathing?”
With his eye shut One-Eye looked dead. Which meant he was laying back in the weeds hoping to get somebody with his cane. He would remain a vicious little shit till the moment he did stop breathing.
“He’s fine. For now. Just stay with him. And holler if anything changes.” I put my things back in my bag. My knees creaked as I rose. I could not manage that without putting some of my weight on One-Eye’s chair. The gods are cruel. They should let the flesh age at the rate the spirit does. Sure, some people would die of old age in a week. But the keepers would hang around forever. And I would not have all these aches and pains. Either way.
I limped as I left One-Eye’s house. My feet hurt.
Things scurried everywhere but where I was looking. Moonlight did not help a bit.
The Grove of Doom:
The drums had begun at sunset, softly, a dark whispering promise of a shadow of all night falling. Now they roared boldly. True night had come. There was not even a sliver of moon. The flickering light of a hundred fires set shadows dancing. It appeared that the trees had pulled up their roots to participate. A hundred frenzied disciples of the Mother of Night capered with them, their passion building.
A hundred bound prisoners shivered and wept and fouled themselves, fear unmanning some who had believed themselves heroic. Their pleas fell upon unhearing ears.
A looming darkness emerged from the night, dragged by prisoners straining at cables in the hopeless hope that by pleasing their captors they might yet survive. Twenty feet tall, the shape proved to be a statue of a woman as black and glistening as polished ebony. It had four arms. It had rubies for eyes and crystal fangs for teeth. It wore a necklace of skulls. It wore another necklace of severed penises. Each taloned hand clutched a symbol of her power over humanity. The prisoners saw only the noose.
The beat of the drums grew more swift. Their volume rose. The Children of Kina began to sing a dark hymn. Those prisoners who were devout began to pray to their own favored gods.
A skinny old man watched from the steps of the temple at the heart of the Grove of Doom. He was seated. He no longer stood unless he had to. His right leg had been broken and the bone improperly set. Walking was difficult and painful. Even standing was a chore.
A tangle of scaffolding rose behind him. The temple was undergoing restoration. Again.
Standing over him, unable to remain still, was a beautiful young woman. The old man feared her excitement was sensual, almost sexual. That should not be. She was the Daughter of Night. She did not exist to serve her own senses.
“I feel it, Narayan!” she enthused. “The imminence is there. This is going to reconnect me with my mother.”
“Perhaps.” The old man was not convinced. There had been no connection with the Goddess for four years. He was troubled. His faith was being tested. Again. And this child had grown up far too headstrong and independent. “Or it may just bring the wrath of the Protector down on our heads.” He went no farther. The argument had been running from the moment that she had used some of her raw, completely untrained magical talent to blind their keepers for the moments they had needed to escape the Protector’s custody three years ago.
The girl’s face hardened. For a moment it took on the dread implacability apparent on the face of the idol. As she always did when the matter of the Protector came up, she said, “She’ll regret mistreating us, Narayan. Her punishment won’t be forgotten for a thousand years.”
Narayan had grown old being persecuted. It was the natural order of his existence. He sought always to make sure that his cult survived the wrath of its enemies. The Daughter of Night was young and powerful and possessed all of youth’s impetuosity and disbelief in its own mortality. She was the child of a Goddess! That Goddess’s ruling age was about to break upon the world, changing everything. In the new order the Daughter of Night would herself become a Goddess. What reason had she to fear? That madwoman in Taglios was nothing!
Invincibility and caution, they were forever at loggerheads, yet were forever inseparable.
The Daughter of Night did believe with all her heart and soul that she was the spiritual child of a Goddess. She had to. But she had been born of man and woman. A flake of humanity remained as a stain upon her heart. She had to have somebody.
Her movements became more pronounced and more sensual, less controlled. Narayan grimaced. She must not forge an interior connection between pleasure and death. The Goddess was a destroyer in one avatar but lives taken in her name were not taken for reasons so slight. Kina would not countenance her Daughter yielding to hedonism. If she did there would be punishments, no doubt falling heaviest upon Narayan Singh.
The priests were ready. They dragged weeping prisoners forward to fulfill the crowning purpose of their lives, their parts in the rites that would reconsecrate Kina’s temple. The second rite would strive to contact the Goddess, who lay bound in enchanted sleep, so that once again the Daughter of Night would be blessed with the Dark Mother’s wisdom and far-seeing vision.
All things that needed doing. But Narayan Singh, the living saint of the Deceivers, the great hero of the Strangler cult, was not a happy man. Control had drifted too far away. The girl had begun altering the cult to reflect her own inner landscape. He feared the chance that one of their arguments would not heal afterward. That had happened with his real children. He had sworn an oath to Kina that he would bring the girl up right, that they both would see her bring on the Year of the Skulls. But if she continued growing ever more headstrong and self-serving...
She could restrain herself no longer. She hurried down the steps. She plucked a strangling scarf from the hands of one of the priests.
What Narayan saw in the girl’s face then he had seen only one place before, in his wife’s face, in her passion, so long ago that it seemed to have happened during an earlier turn around the Wheel of Life.
Saddened, he realized that when the next rite started she would throw herself into the torture of the victims. In her state she might become too involved and spill their blood, which would be an offense the Goddess would never excuse.
He was becoming extremely troubled, was Narayan Singh.
And then he became more troubled still as his wandering eye caught sight of a crow in the crotch of a tree almost directly behind the deadly rite. Worse, that crow noticed him noticing it. It flung itself into the air with a mocking cry. A hundred crow voices immediately answered from all over the grove.
The Protector knew!
Narayan yelled at the girl. Attention much too focused, she did not hear him.
Agony ripped through his leg as he climbed to his feet. How soon would the soldiers arrive? How would he ever run again? How would he keep the Goddess’s hope alive when his flesh had grown so frail and his faith had worn so threadbare?
An Abode of Ravens:
Outpost was a quiet city of broad lanes and white walls. We had adopted the native custom of whitewashing everything but the thatch and decorative vegetation.
On holidays some locals even painted each other white. White had been a great symbol of resistance to the Shadowmasters in times gone by.
Our city was artificial and military, all straight lines, cleanliness and quiet. Except at night, if Tobo’s friends got to brawling amongst themselves. By day, noise was confined to the training fields where the latest bunch of native would-be adventurers were learning the Black Company way of doing business. I was remote from all that except for patching up training mishaps. No one from my era was involved anymore. Like One-Eye I am a relic of a distant age, a living icon of the history that makes up so much of the unique social adhesive we used to hold the Company together. They rolled me out on special occasions and had me give sermons that began, “In those days the Company was in service to...”
It was a spooky night, the two moons illuminating everything while casting conflicting shadows. And Tobo’s pets were increasingly disturbed about something. I began to catch straightforward glimpses of some when they became too distracted to work at staying out of sight. In most cases I was sorry.
The uproar up toward the shadowgate rose and fell. There were lights up there now, too. A couple of fireballs flew just before I reached my destination. I began to feel uneasy myself.
Headquarters was a two-story sprawl at the center of town. Sleepy had filled it with assistants and associates and functionaries who kept track of every horseshoe nail and every grain of rice. She had turned command into a bureaucratic exercise. And I did not like it. Of course. Because I was a cranky old man who remembered how things used to be in the good old days when we did things the right way. My way.
I do not think I have lost my sense of humor, though. I see the irony in having turned into my own grandfather.
I have stepped aside. I have passed the torch to someone younger, more energetic and tactically brighter than I ever was. But I have not abandoned my right to be involved, to contribute, to criticize and, particularly, to complain. It is a job somebody has to do. So I exasperate the younger people sometimes. Which is good for them. It builds character.
I strode through the ground-floor busywork Sleepy uses to shield herself from the world. Day or night there was a crew on duty, counting those arrowheads and grains of rice. I should remind her to get out into the world once in a while. Putting up barriers will not protect her from her demons because they are all inside her already.
I was almost old enough to get away with talk like that.
Irritation crossed her dry, dusky, almost sexless face when I walked in. She was at her prayers. I do not understand that. Despite everything she has been through, much of which puts the lie to Vehdna doctrine, she persists in her faith.
“I’ll wait till you’re done.”
The fact that I had caught her was what irritated her. The fact that she needed to believe even in the face of the evidence was what embarrassed her.
She rose, folded her prayer rug. “How bad is he this time?”
“Rumor got it wrong. It wasn’t One-Eye. It was Gota. And she’s gone. But One-Eye is in a pickle about something else he thinks is going to happen. About which he was less than vague. Tobo’s friends are being more than normally weird so it’s entirely possible it isn’t One-Eye’s imagination.”
“I’d better send someone after Sahra.”
“Tobo is taking care of it.”
Sleepy considered me steadily. She may be short but she has presence and self-confidence. “What’s on your mind?”
“I’m feeling some of what One-Eye is. Or maybe I just naturally can’t stand a prolonged peace.”
“Lady nagging you about going home again?”
“No. Murgen’s last communion with Shivetya has her worried.” To say the least. Modern history had turned cruel back in our home world. The Deceiver cult has rebounded in our absence, making converts by the hundred. At the same time Soulcatcher tormented the Taglian Territories in a mad and mainly fruitless effort to root out her enemies, most of whom were imaginary until she and Mogaba created them through their zeal. “She hasn’t said so but I’m pretty sure she’s afraid Booboo is manipulating Soulcatcher somehow.”
Sleepy could not stifle a smile. “Booboo?”
“Your fault. I picked it up from something you wrote.”
“She’s your daughter.”
“We have to call her something.”
“I can’t believe you two never picked a name.”
“She was born before...” I like “Ghana.” It was good enough for my grandmother. Lady would have demurred. It sounded too much like Kina.
And although Booboo might be a nightmare stalking, Booboo was Lady’s daughter and in the land where she had grown up mothers always named the daughters. Always. When the time was right.
This time will never be right. This child denies us both. She stipulates that our flesh quickened her flesh but she is animated by an absolute conviction that she is the spiritual daughter of the Goddess Kina. She is the Daughter of Night. Her sole purpose for existing is to precipitate the Year of the Skulls, that great human disaster that will free her slumbering soulmother so she can resume working her wickedness upon the world. Or upon the worlds, actually, as we had discovered once my quest for the Company’s ancient origins had led us to the time-wracked fortress on the plain of glittering stone lying between our world and the Land of Unknown Shadows.
Silence stretched between us. Sleepy had been Annalist a long time. She had come to the Company young. Its traditions meant a great deal to her. Consequently she remained unfailingly courteous to her predecessors. But internally, I am sure, she was impatient with us old farts. Particularly with me. She never knew me well. And I was always taking up time wanting to know what was going on. I have begun putting too much emphasis on detail now that I do not have much to do but write.
I told her, “I don’t offer advice unless you ask.”
That startled her.
“Trick I learned from Soulcatcher. Makes people think you’re reading their minds. She’s much better at it.”
“I’m sure she is. She’s had all that time to practice.” She puffed air out of expanded cheeks. “It’s been a week since we’ve talked. Let’s see. Nothing to report from Shivetya. Murgen’s been at Khang Phi with Sahra so he hasn’t been in touch with the golem. Reports from the men working on the plain say they’re suffering from recurring premonitions of disaster.”
“Really? They said it that way?” She had her pontifical moments.
“What’s the traffic situation?”
“There is none.” She looked puzzled. The plain had seen no one cross for generations before the Company managed the passage. The last, before us, had been the Shadowmasters who had fled the Land of Unknown Shadows for our world back before I was born.
“Wrong question. I guess. How’re you coming with preparations for our return?”
“That a personal or professional question?” Everything was business with Sleepy. I do not recall ever having seen her relax. Sometimes that worried me. Something in her past, hinted at in her own Annals, had left her convinced that that was the only way she could be safe.
“Both.” I wished I could tell Lady that we would be going home soon. She had no love for the Land of Unknown Shadows.
I am sure she will not enjoy the future wherever we go. It is an absolute certainty that the times to come will not be good. I do not believe she understands that yet. Not in her heart.
Even she can be naive about some things.
“The short answer is that we can probably put a reinforced company across as early as next month. If we can acquire the shadowgate knowledge.”
Crossing the plain is a major undertaking because you have to carry with you everything you will need for a week. Up there there is nothing to eat but glittering stone. Stone remembers but stone has little nutritional value.
“Are you going too?”
“I’m going to send scouts and spies, no matter what. We can use the home shadowgate as long as we only put through a few men at a time.”
“You won’t take Shivetya’s word?”
“The demon has his own agenda.”
She would know. She had been in direct communion with that Steadfast Guardian.
What I knew of the golem’s designs made me concerned for Lady. Shivetya, that ancient entity, created to manage and watch over the plain—which was an artifact itself—wanted to die. He could not do so while Kina survived. One of his tasks was to ensure that the sleeping Goddess did not awaken and escape her imprisonment.
When Kina ceased to exist, my wife’s tenuous grasp on those magical powers critical to her sense of self-worth and identity would perish with her. What powers Lady boasted, she possessed only because she had found a way to steal from the Goddess. She was a complete parasite.
I said, “And you, believing the Company dictum that we have no friends outside, don’t value his friendship.”
“Oh, he’s perfectly marvelous, Croaker. He saved my life. But he didn’t do it because I’m cute and I jiggle in the right places when I run.”
She was not cute. I could not imagine her jiggling, either. This was a woman who had gotten away with pretending to be a boy for years. There was nothing feminine about her. Nor anything masculine, either. She was not a sexual being at all, though for a while there had been rumors that she and Swan had become a midnight item.
It turned out purely platonic.
“I’ll reserve comment. You’ve surprised me before.”
Took her a while, sometimes, to understand when someone was joking. Or even being sarcastic, though she had a tongue like a razor herself.
She realized I was ribbing her. “I see. Then let me surprise you one more time by asking your advice.”
“Oh-oh. You’ll have them sharpening their skates in hell.”
“Howler and Longshadow. I’ve got to make decisions.”
“File of Nine nagging you again?” The File of Nine — “File” from military usage — was a council of warlords, their identities kept secret, who formed the nearest thing to a real ruling body in Hsien. The monarchy and aristocracy of record were little more than decorative and, in the main, too intimate with poverty to accomplish much if the inclination existed.
The File of Nine had only limited power. Their existence barely assured that near-anarchy did not devolve into complete chaos. The Nine would have been more effective had they not prized their anonymity more than their implied power.
“Them and the Court of All Seasons. The Noble Judges really want Longshadow.” The imperial court of Hsien—consisting of aristocrats with less real world power than the File of Nine but enjoying more a demonstrative moral authority—were obsessively interested in gaining possession of Longshadow. Being an old cynic I tended to suspect them of less than moral ambitions. But we had few dealings with them. Their seat, Quang Ninh City, was much too far away.
The one thing the peoples of Hsien held in common, every noble and every peasant, every priest and every warlord, was an implacable and ugly thirst for revenge upon the Shadowmaster invaders of yesteryear. Longshadow, still trapped in stasis underneath the glittering plain, represented the last possible opportunity to extract that cathartic vengeance. Longshadow’s value in our dealings with the Children of the Dead was phenomenally disproportionate.
Hatreds seldom are constrained to rational scales.
Sleepy continued, “And hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear from some lesser warlord begging me to bring Longshadow in. The way they all volunteer to take charge of him leaves me nurturing the sneaking suspicion that most of them aren’t quite as idealistically motivated as the File of Nine and the Court of All Seasons.”
“No doubt. He’d be a handy tool for anybody who wanted to adjust the power balance. If anyone was fool enough to believe he could manage a puppet Shadowmaster.” No world lacks its villains so self-confident that they don’t believe they can get the best end of a bargain with the darkness. I married one of those. I am not sure she has learned her lesson yet. “Has anyone offered to fix our shadowgate?”
“The Court is actually willing to give us someone. The trouble with that is that they don’t actually have anyone equipped with the skills to make the needed fixes. Chances are, no one has those skills. But the knowledge exists in records stored at Khang Phi.”
“So why don’t we?...”
“We’re working on it. Meantime, the Court do seem to believe in us. And they absolutely do want some kind of revenge before all of Longshadow’s surviving victims have been claimed by age.”
“And what about the Howler?”
“Tobo wants him. Says he can handle him now.”
“Does anybody else think so?” I meant Lady. “Or is he overconfident?”
Sleepy shrugged. “There’s nobody telling me they’ve got anything more they can teach him.” She meant Lady, too, and did not mean that Tobo suffered from a teen attitude. Tobo had no trouble taking advice or instruction when either of those did not originate with his mother.
I asked anyway. “Not even Lady?”
“She, I think, might be holding out on him.”
“You can bet on it.” I married the woman but I don’t have many illusions about her. She would be thrilled to go back to her old wicked ways. Life with me and the Company has not been anything like happily ever after. Reality has a way of slow-roasting romance. Though we get along well enough. “She can’t be any other way. Get her to tell you about her first husband. You’ll marvel that she came out as sane as she did.” I marveled every day. Right before I gave in to my astonishment that the woman really had given up everything to ride off with me. Well, something. She had not had much at the time and her prospects had been grim. “What the hell is that?”
“Alarm horns.” Sleepy bolted out of her seat. She was spry for a woman treading hard on the heels of middle age. On the other hand, of course, she was so short she did not have a lot of real getting up to do. “I didn’t order any drills.”
She had an ugly habit of doing that. Only the traitor Mogaba, when he had been with us, had had as determined an attitude about preparedness.
Sleepy was too serious about everything.
Tobo’s unknown shadows began raising their biggest uproar yet.
“Come on!” Sleepy snapped. “Why aren’t you armed?” She was. She always was, although I never have seen her use a weapon more substantial than guile.
“I’m retired. I’m a paper pusher these days.”
“I don’t see you wearing a tombstone for a hat.”
“I had an attitude problem once upon a time, myself, but...”
“Speaking of which. I want a reading in the officers’ mess before lights out. Something that tells us all about the wages of indolence and the neglect of readiness. Or about the fate of ordinary mercenaries.” She was in brisk motion, headed for the main exit, overtaking staffers who were not dawdling themselves. “Make a hole, people. Make a hole. Coming through.”
Outside, people were pointing and babbling. The moonlight and a lot of fire betrayed a pillar of black, oily smoke boiling up from just below the gate to the glittering plain. I stated the obvious. “Something’s happened.” Clever me.
“Suvrin’s up there. He has a level head.”
Suvrin was a solid young officer with maybe just a tad of worship for his captain. You could be confident that neither accidents nor stupid mistakes would happen on Suvrin’s watch.
Runners gathered, ready to carry Sleepy’s instructions. She gave the only order she could till we knew more. Be alert. Even though to a man we believed that there was no way major trouble could come at us from off the plain.
The thing that you know to be true is the lie that will kill you.
An Abode of Ravens:
Suvrin did not arrive until after midnight. By then even our dullards understood that there was significance to the agitation of the hidden folk and the crows whose presence gave our settlement its local name. Arms had been issued. Men with fireball poles now perched on every rooftop. Tobo had warned his supernatural friends to stay out of town lest taut human nerves snap and cause them harm.
Everyone of stature available gathered to await Suvrin’s report. A couple of subalterns took turns running up to the headquarters’ roof to check the progress of the torches descending the long scarp from the shadowgate. Local boys, they seemed to feel that their great adventure had begun at last.
They were fools.
An adventure is somebody else slogging through the mud and snow while suffering from trench foot, ringworm, dysentery and starvation, being chased by people with their hearts set on murder or more. I have been there. I have done that, playing both parts. I do not recommend it. Be content with a nice farm or shop. Make lots of babies and bring them up to be good people.
If the new blood remain blind to reality after we move out I guarantee that their naivete will not long survive their first encounter with my sister-in-law, Soulcatcher.
Suvrin finally arrived, accompanied by the runner Sleepy had sent to meet him. He seemed surprised by the size of the assembly awaiting him.
“Get up front and talk,” Sleepy told him. Always direct and to the point, my successor.
Silence fell. Suvrin looked around nervously. He was short, dark, slightly pudgy. His family had been minor nobility. Sleepy had taken him prisoner of war four years ago, just before the Company climbed onto the glittering plain, headed this way. Now he commanded an infantry battalion and seemed destined for bigger things because the Company was growing. He told us, “Something came through the shadowgate.”
Jabber jabber, question question.
“I don’t know what. One of my men came to tell me he thought he’d seen something sneaking around in the rocks on the other side of the gate. I went to look. After four years of nothing happening I assumed it would be just a shadow or one of the Nef. The dreamwalkers visit us all the time. I was wrong. I never got a good look at the thing but it seemed to be a large animal, black and extremely fast. Not as big as Big Ears or Cat Sith but definitely faster. It was able to pass through the shadowgate without help.”
I felt a chill. I tried to reject my immediate suspicion. It was not possible. Nevertheless, I said, “Forvalaka.”
“Tobo, where are you?” Sleepy demanded.
“Here.” He sat with several Children of the Dead, officers in training.
“Find this thing. Catch it. If it’s what Croaker said, I want you to kill it.”
“That’ll be easier said than done. It’s already squabbled with the Black Hounds. They backed off. They’re just trying to keep track of it now.”
“Then kill it, Tobo.” There was no “try to” or “do whatever you can” with this Captain.
I told him, “Ask Lady to help you. She knows those things. But before anybody does anything, we need to set up some kind of protection for One-Eye.” If it was a shape-shifting, man-eating werepanther from our homeworld, it could be only one monster. And that creature hated One-Eye with the deepest and most abiding passion imaginable because One-Eye had slain the only wizard capable of helping it regain its human form.
“You think it really is Lisa Bowalk?” Sleepy asked.
“I get that feeling. But you told me it escaped from the plain through the Khatovar gate. And it couldn’t get back.”
Sleepy shrugged. “That’s what Shivetya showed me. It’s possible that I just assumed it couldn’t get back onto the plain.”
“Or maybe it made new friends out there.”
The little woman spun, barked, “Suvrin?”
Suvrin understood. “I left them on maximum alert.”
I said, “Tobo will have to check the seals on the gate. We don’t want it leaking shadows because whatever it was broke through.” Though the boy would not be able to do much to stem a real flood. That honor would have to go to his hidden folk friends. Lack of technical knowledge about shadowgates was the main reason we continued to reside in the Land of Unknown Shadows.
“I understand that, Croaker. Can I get to work here?”
I was underfoot. Being considered useless is irksome.
That condition was familiar to most of us whom Soulcatcher had beguiled and captured and managed to leave buried for fifteen years. Our Company had changed during our slumber. Even Lady and Murgen, who had maintained tenuous connections with the outside world, found themselves marginalized now. Murgen did not mind.
The culture of the Company has become quite alien. Almost no northern flavor remains. Just a few little quirkss in how things are done, and my own proud legacy, an interest in hygiene that is completely foreign to these climes.
These southerners did not enjoy a proper terror of the forvalaka. They insisted on picturing it as just another spooky nightstalker like Big Ears or Paddlefoot, which they consider essentially harmless. Near as I can tell they appear harmless only because their victims seldom survive to report any contrary facts.
“A reading from the First Book of Croaker,” I told the assembly. It was after midnight. There had been no uproar for a while. The shadowgate was not leaking the Unforgiven Dead. Tobo was trying to pinpoint the intruder but was having difficulties. It was moving around a lot, scouting, plainly unsure how it should view the fact that it had fallen right in among us. “In those days the Company was in service to the Syndic of Beryl.”
I told them about another forvalaka, long ago and far away and way more cruel than this one ever could be. I wanted them to worry.
An Abode of Ravens:
Lady and I sat up with One-Eye. Gota had been laid out in the same room. Candles surrounded her. “I see no obvious change in the woman.”
“I hear a difference, though. She hasn’t complained about anything since we got here.”
Playing deaf, One-Eye took a long drink of his product, closed his eye, nodded off. Lady whispered, “It’s probably best if he naps.”
“Not very lively bait.”
“Carrion’s good enough to draw this thing. What it wants to kill really only exists inside itself. One-Eye is just its symbol.” She rubbed her eyes.
I winced. She looked so old, my love. Grey hair. Wrinkles. Jowls developing. Broadening in the beam. The deterioration had been swift since Sleepy rescued us.
Lucky for me there was no mirror handy. I really do not like to look at that fat, old, bald guy who goes around claiming to be Croaker.
The shadows in the room were restless. They made me nervous. From the beginning of our association with Taglios, shadows have been cause for terror. A shadow in motion meant death could have hold of you any moment. Those sad but cruel monsters off the plain had been the lethal instruments by which the Shadowmasters had earned their fame and had enforced their wills. But here, in the Land of Unknown Shadows, the hidden folk who lurked in the dark were shy but not ordinarily unfriendly—if treated with respect. And even those manifestations owning a history of wickedness and malice now worshipped Tobo and harmed no mortal closely associated with the Company. Unless that mortal was dim enough to irk Tobo somehow.
Tobo lived as much in the world of the hidden folk as he did in ours.
In the distance the spectral cat Big Ears again mouthed his unique call. Native legend says only the creature’s prospective victims ever hear that chilling cry. A couple of the Black Hounds bayed. Legend suggests you do not want to hear their voices, either. Interviews with locals lead me to believe that before Tobo arrived only ignorant peasants really believed in most such perils of the night and the wild. Educated folk at Khang Phi and Quang Ninh had been stunned by what the boy had summoned from the shadows.
I glanced at the spear above the door. One-Eye had worked on that for decades. It was as much work of art as weapon. “Hon. Didn’t One-Eye start crafting that spear because of Bowalk?”
She paused in her knitting, stared up at the spear, mused, “Seems to me Murgen wrote that One-Eye intended to use it on one of the Shadowmasters but ended up sticking Bowalk with it instead. During the siege. Or was that?...”
My knees creaked as I rose. “Whatever. Just in case.” I took the spear down. “Damn. It’s heavy.”
“If the monster does get this far, try to keep in mind that we’d rather catch it than kill it.”
“I know. It was my bright idea.” The wisdom of which I had begun to doubt. I thought it might be interesting to see what would happen if we could force it to change back into the woman it had been before it had become fixed in its cat shape. I wanted to ask her questions about Khatovar.
Always assuming that the invader was the dread forvalaka, Lisa Daele Bowalk.
I sat down again. “Sleepy says she’s ready to send spies and scouts across.”
“We’ve been avoiding the facts a long time.” This was hard. It had taken me an age to work up to it. “The girl... Our child...”
“We have to call her something. The Daughter of Night is so unwieldy. Booboo works without being an emotional calthrop.”
“We have to make some decisions.”
Black Hounds, Cat Sith, Big Ears and numerous other hidden folk began to give voice. I said, “That’s inside the wall.”
“Headed this way.” She set her knitting aside.
One-Eye’s head rose.
The door exploded inward before I finished turning to face it.
A plank floated toward me in slow motion, slapped me across the belly hard enough to set me down on the floor on my butt. Something huge and black with blazing angry eyes followed the board but lost interest in me in midleap. Still falling backward onto my back I scored its flank with One-Eye’s spear. Flesh parted. Rib bones appeared. I tried to thrust on into the beast’s belly but did not have enough leverage. It screamed but could not alter its momentum.
Burning pain seared deep into my left shoulder, not three inches from the side of my neck. The forvalaka was not responsible, though. Friendly fire was. My sweet wife had discharged a fireball projector while I was between her and her target. There was plenty of fire left, though, when that ball, its flight path altered, clipped the panther’s tail two inches from its root.
The monster’s scream continued. It flung its head back while still airborne. Its whole frame was in the position heralds call rampant.
It hit One-Eye.
The old man made no obvious effort to defend himself. His chair went over. It shattered into kindling wood. One-Eye skidded along the dirt floor. The forvalaka ploughed into Gota, tipping the table on which she had been laid out. Lady loosed another fireball. It missed. I fought to get around onto my hands and knees, then to get the head of the spear up, between me and the monster. It fought for its footing while trying to turn at the same time. It slammed into the far wall. I got my feet under me, started to stumble around.
Lady missed again.
“No!” I shrieked. My feet tangled. I came close to landing on my face again. I tried to do three things at once and, naturally, did none of them well. I wanted to get hold of One-Eye, I wanted to get my spearhead back up, I wanted to get the hell out of that house.
Lady did not miss again. But this fireball was a puny one, a near dud. It hit the monster right between the eyes. And just ricocheted off, taking a few square inches of skin along with it, leaving a patch of skull bone exposed.
The forvalaka screamed again.
Then One-Eye’s still blew up. Which is what I had expected from the moment Lady’s fireball had gone through the wall.
Mogaba knew there was trouble seconds after he left his rooms, so austerely furnished in shabby regrets. Palace staffers pushed to the sides of the corridors as he passed. Without exception they were scuttling away from the Privy Council Chamber. They must have heard rumors that had not yet reached his ears. Rumors they were sure would displease the Protector, which meant that, soon, someone would be making life unpleasant for someone else and these people hoped to be well out of the way before he started.
“Pride,” he said, in a normal, conversational voice to a young Grey runner trying to ease past without attracting notice. “Pride is what did me in.”
“Yes sir.” Color drained from the young Shadar’s face. He did not yet have a beard to hide behind. “I mean, no sir. I’m sorry...”
Mogaba was gone, indifferent to the apprentice soldier. Similar incidents occurred each time he passed through the Palace. He spoke to almost everyone. Those who had watched the habit develop understood that he was talking to himself and did not expect any reply. He was pursuing a running debate with his own guilts and ghosts—unless he was spouting proverbs and aphorisms, most of the meanings fairly obvious but a few convolute and obscure. He was particularly fond of “Fortune smiles. And then betrays.” He just could not get into bed comfortably with the truth that he had made that bed himself. He still had difficulty separating “ought to be” from “the way things really are.” He was no fool, though. He knew he had problems.
He was certain that he had a much more solid grip on reality than did his employer, though.
Soulcatcher, however, took the view that she was a virtual free agent and refused to be wedded to any particular reality. She believed in creating her own by making her imaginings come true.
Some were quite mad. Few, however, lasted beyond the heated moment of conception.
Mogaba heard crows arguing ahead. Crows infested the Palace these days. Soulcatcher was fond of crows. She allowed no one to harass or harm them. Of late bats had made a claim on her affections as well.
When the crows became vocal the few servants still around started moving much faster. Unhappy crows meant unhappy news. Unhappy news was guaranteed to produce an extremely unhappy Protector. When Soulcatcher was unhappy she did not care who suffered the consequences. But someone surely would.
Mogaba stepped into the council chamber and waited. She would talk to him when she was ready. Ghopal Singh of the Greys and Aridatha Singh of the City Battalions—no relation: Singh was the most common surname in Taglios—were there already. Which meant that Soulcatcher must have been haranguing them about their failure to root out enough enemies, again, before the bad news arrived.
Mogaba exchanged glances with both men. As he believed himself to be, they were good men trapped by impossible circumstances. Ghopal had a flair for enforcing the law. Aridatha was equally talented at keeping the peace without enraging the populace. Both men managed despite Soulcatcher, who loved both chaos and despotism and inflicted each with verve and ferocity, driven by the dictates of whimsy.
The woman seemed to materialize suddenly. It was a talent she used to disconcert lesser beings. A lesser man than Mogaba might have been numbed by the sight of her. The woman had a body the wonders of which seemed highlighted rather than concealed by the tight black leather she wore. Nature had blessed her with superb raw materials. Her vanity had driven her, over the centuries, to keep making improvements through cosmetic sorceries.
“I’m not happy,” Soulcatcher announced. Her voice was petulant, that of a spoiled child. Today her look was younger than usual, as though she wanted to spark every young man’s fantasy. Although the preening crow on the tall chair back behind her was a distraction once she settled.
“May I ask why?” Mogaba asked. His voice was calm, untroubled. Life in the Palace at Taglios consisted of a disorganized stumble from crisis to crisis. He no longer became emotionally involved. Soulcatcher would turn on him someday. He had made his peace with that already. He would face it calmly when it came. He deserved no better.
“There is a huge Deceiver festival being celebrated in the Grove of Doom. Right now. Tonight.” This voice was cool, calm, rational. Masculine. You got used to the changes after a while. Mogaba seldom noticed anymore. Aridatha Singh, only recently promoted, still found the unpredictable chorus disconcerting. Singh was a sound officer and good soldier. Mogaba hoped he lasted long enough to become accustomed to the Protector’s quirks. Aridatha deserved better than he was likely to get.
“That’s definitely not good news,” Mogaba agreed. “Seems I recall you wanting to harvest the timber there while obliterating every last trace of the holy place. Selvas Gupta talked you out of it. Said it would set a bad precedent.” Gupta had had secret encouragement from the Great General, who had not cared to waste manpower and time clearing a forest. But Mogaba loathed Selvas Gupta and his smugly holy attitude of superiority.
Gupta was the current Purohita, or official court chaplain and religious adviser. Purohita was a post that had been forced upon the Radisha Drah twenty years earlier by the priesthoods at a time when the princess had been too weak to defy them. Soulcatcher had not yet abolished it. But she had little patience with the men who occupied it.
Selvas Gupta had been Purohita for a year, which incumbency exceeded that of all his predecessors since the establishment of the Protectorate.
Mogaba was confident that slimy little snake Gupta would not last out the week.
Soulcatcher gave him a look which offered the impression that she was peering deep inside him, sorting his secrets and motives. Having paused just long enough to suggest that she was not being fooled, she said, “Get me a new Purohita. Kill the old one if he argues about it.” She had an ancient custom of being unpleasant toward priests who disappointed her. Which ran in the family. Her sister had slain hundreds in a single massacre a generation earlier. The exemplary demonstrations of both sisters, however, never seemed sufficient to convince the survivors that they ought to abandon their scheming. They were stubborn. It seemed likely that Taglios would come up short of priests before it ran short of conspiracies.
The crow hopped down onto Soulcatcher’s shoulder. She lifted gloved fingers to offer it some tidbit.
“Did you have a response in mind? Something involving my colleagues?” Mogaba nodded toward the Singhs in turn. He suffered little jealousy of either man and did respect each for his abilities. Time and persistent adversity had ground the rough edges off of his once potent sense of self-appreciation.
“These gentlemen were here already, regarding another matter, when the news from the Grove arrived.” She offered the crow another morsel.
Mogaba’s eyes narrowed the tiniest fraction. He was not to be made privy to that matter?
But he was. Soulcatcher used a cackling crone’s voice. “The Greys found several slogans painted on walls today.” The crow cawed. Elsewhere, other crows began squabbling.
“Not uncommon,” Mogaba replied. “Every idiot with a brush, a pot of paint and enough education to string five characters together seems to be compelled to say something if he discovers a blank piece of wall.”
“These were slogans from the past.” This was the voice the Protector used when she was focused entirely on business. It was a male voice. A voice like Mogaba imagined his own to be. “Three said ‘Rajadharma .’”
“I’ve heard the Bhodi cult is making a comeback, too.”
Ghopal Singh added, “Two said ‘Water Sleeps .’ That’s not Bhodi. And they weren’t stray graffiti left over from four years ago.”
A thrill, half fear, half excitement, coursed through Mogaba. He stared at the Protector. She said, “I want to know who’s doing it. I want to know why they’ve decided to do it right now.”
Mogaba thought both Singhs looked cautiously pleased, as though glad to have potential real enemies to chase instead of just irritating people who would otherwise remain indifferent to the Palace.
The Grove of Doom was outside the city. Everything outside was Mogaba’s province. He asked, “Was there some particular action you wished me to take in regard to the Deceivers?”
Soulcatcher smiled. When she did that, just that way, every minute of her many centuries shone through. “Nothing. Not a thing. They’re scattering already. I’ll let you know when. It’ll be when they’re not ready.” This voice was cold but was filled with her evil smile. Mogaba wondered if the Singhs knew how seldom anyone saw the Protector without her mask. It meant that she meant to involve them in her schemes too deeply for them to escape the association.
Mogaba nodded like a dutiful servant. It was all a game to the Protector. Or possibly several games. Maybe making a game of it was how you survived spiritually in a world where everyone else was ephemeral.
Soulcatcher said, “I want you to help catch rats. There’s a shortage of carrion. My babies are going hungry.” She offered her black-winged spy another treat. This one suspiciously resembled a human eyeball.
An Abode of Ravens:
“Am I still alive?” I did not need to ask. I was. Pain was a dead giveaway. Every square inch of me hurt.
“Don’t move.” That was Tobo. “Or you’ll wish you hadn’t.”
I already wished I did not have to breathe. “Burns?”
“Lots of burns. Lots of banging around, too.”
Murgen’s voice said, “You look like they whipped your ass with a forty-pound ugly stick, then slow-roasted what was left over an open pit.”
“I thought you were at Khang Phi.”
“We came home.”
Tobo said, “We kept you unconscious for four days.”
“How is Lady?”
Murgen told me, “She’s in the other bed. In a lot better shape than you.”
“She ought to be. I didn’t shoot her. The cat get her tongue?”
“What about One-Eye?”
Tobo’s response was barely audible. “One-Eye didn’t make it, Croaker.”
After a while, Murgen asked, “You all right?”
“He was the last.”
“Last? Last what?”
“The last one who was here when I joined. The Company.” I was the real Old Man now. “What happened to his spear? I’ve got to have his spear in order to finish this.”
“What spear?” Murgen asked.
Tobo knew what spear. “I have it at my place.”
“Was it damaged by the fire?”
“Not much. Why?”
“I’m going to kill that thing. Like we should have a long time ago. You don’t let that spear out of your sight. I’ve got to have it. But right now I’m going to sleep for a while some more.” I had to go where the pain was not, just for a time. I had known One-Eye would leave us someday. I thought I was ready for that. I was wrong.
His passing meant more than just the end of an old friend. It marked the end of an age.
Tobo said something about the spear. I did not catch it. And the darkness came back before I remembered to ask what had become of the forvalaka. If Lady had caught or killed it I had gotten myself worked up for nothing... But I guess I knew it could not be that easy.
There were dreams. I remembered everyone who had gone before me. I remembered the places and times. Cold places, hot places, weird places, always stressful times, swollen with unhappiness, pain and fear. Some died. Some did not. It makes no sense when you try to figure it out. Soldiers live. And wonder why.
Oh, it’s a soldier’s life for me. Oh, the adventure and glory!
It took me longer to recuperate than it had that time I almost got killed outside Dejagore. Even with Tobo applying his own best healing spells, learned from One-Eye, and urging his edge-of-the-eye friends to help as well. Some of those were supposed to be able to bring a fossil back to life. I felt like a fossil, like I had not enjoyed the advantage of the stasis that had frozen the others while we were prisoners under the plain. There was a lot of confusion inside me. I could no longer figure out how old I am. My best guess is fifty-six, give or take a few years, plus all that time underneath the earth. And fifty-six years, brother, was a pretty damned good run—particularly for a guy in my racket. I ought to appreciate every second, including all the misery.
Soldiers live. And wonder why.
An Abode of Ravens:
Two months had passed. I felt ten years older but I was up and around—and moving like a zombie. I had indeed been roasted well-done by a jet of almost pure alcohol blowing through the hole that had been drilled by Lady’s errant fireball. Everybody kept telling me how much the gods must love me, that I had no business being alive. That had I not been turned the way I was, with the forvalaka positioned perfectly to absorb a lot of the blast, there would not have been much left of me but bones.
I was not entirely convinced that that might not have been the better outcome.
Persistent pain does little to buoy one’s optimism or elevate one’s mood. I began to develop a certain sympathy for Mother Gota’s perspective.
I did manage a smile when Lady began to rub me down with healing unguents. “Silver linings,” she told me.
“Oh, yes indeed. Yes indeed.”
“Would you look at that? Maybe you’re not as old as you think.”
“It’s all your fault, wench.”
“Sleepy’s worried about you wanting to avenge One-Eye.”
“I know.” I did not have to be told. I had had to put up with people like me when I was Captain.
“Maybe you should tone it down.”
“It’s got to be done. It’s going to be done. Sleepy’s got to understand that.” Sleepy is all business. Her world does not include much leeway for emotional indulgence.
She thinks I just want to use One-Eye’s death as an excuse to visit the Khatovar shadowgate, basing her judgment on the fact that I had tramped through Hell for a decade trying to get to that place.
The woman is hard to fool. But she can also get fixed on one idea to the exclusion of other possibilities.
“She doesn’t want to make any more enemies.”
“More? We don’t have any. Not out here. They may not like us much but they all kiss our asses. They’re scared to death of us. And they get more scared every time another White Lady or Blue Man or wichtlin or whatnot lumbers out of folklore and joins Tobo’s entourage.”
“Uhn. Is that the spot? I saw something Tobo called a wowsey with the Black Hounds yesterday.” That is my honey. She can see those things clearly, even over here. “It’s as big as a hippo but looks like a beetle with a lizard’s head. A lizard with big teeth. To quote Swan, ‘It looks like it fell out of the ugly tree and hit every single branch on the way down.’”
Willow Swan seemed to be cultivating a new image as a churlish but colorful old man.
Somebody has to step in and take One-Eye’s place. Though I was sort of thinking about picking up the stick myself.
“What do we know about the forvalaka?” I asked. I had avoided asking for specifics before. I knew the damned thing got away. That was all I needed to know until I was prepared mentally to start planning the conclusion of its tale.
“It left its tail behind. It suffered severe burns and several deep wounds and I blinded it partially with my last fireball. It lost several teeth. Tobo has created a number of fetishes using those and bits of flesh torn off by the Black Hounds while it was fleeing toward the shadowgate.”
“But it did have what it takes to get back to Khatovar.”
“Then it’s going to be as hard to kill as the Limper was.”
“Not anymore. Not with what Tobo has.”
“He had your help?”
“I’m ancient in the ways of wickedness. Am I not? Didn’t you write something like that a time or two?”
“Especially after I got to know you... Ouch! Well... as long as you’re a bad girl like you’re being a bad girl right now...” I do not recall if I did write the exact words she claimed but I know I recorded those approximate sentiments many years ago. Without exaggerating. “I’m going to go after it.”
“I know.” She did not argue. They were humoring me. They wanted to keep me quiet. Sleepy was involved in touchy negotiations with the File of Nine. The Court of All Seasons and the monks of Khang Phi were behind us already. The warlords of the File remain unconvinced that it would be wise to give us what we want even though the Company has grown to the point where it has become a serious burden on Hsien’s economy. And poses a threat, if the notion of conquest happens to take root. I, myself, do not see one warlord, or even a cabal of warlords, out there, who would stand much more chance than smoke in a high wind if the notion did take us. Most of the warlords are clear on that, too.
They still want Maricha Manthara Dhumraksha—our Shadowmaster Longshadow—desperately. Their hunger for revenge borders on racial obsession. They are not forthcoming about the evils Longshadow visited upon their forbears but we have our sources inside Khang Phi. Longshadow’s cruelties had been as capricious as any wickedness of Soulcatcher’s but far more terrible for their victims. The need to haul the Shadowmaster up before a tribunal colored every consideration of the warlords, the legal and noble courts, even the several spiritual traditions of Hsien. Maricha Manthara Dhumraksha was the one thing they all agreed upon. Nor did I ever sense a hint of a chance some rogue would try to acquire control of Longshadow in an effort to amplify his own power.
Sleepy did not want a short-tempered, foulmouthed but still influential former Captain stumbling around being sarcastic and opinionated while she was trying to wring the one last concession she wanted out of the File of Nine. She was confident that our years of good behavior would tilt the scale. And if it did not, well, she was the kind of planner who always had a secondary scheme in motion. In fact, she was that wonderful kind of villain for whom the public and obvious scheme might well be only a tertiary effort meant primarily as a smoke screen. Our Sleepy was one wicked little girl.
There are no great sorcerers in the Land of Unknown Shadows. “All Evil Dies There an Endless Death” means that they have persecuted the talented since the flight of the Shadowmasters. But Hsien does not lack or disdain knowledge. There are several huge monasteries—of which Khang Phi is the greatest—dedicated to the preservation of knowledge. The monks do not sort it into good and evil knowledge, nor do they make moral judgments. They take the position that no knowledge is evil until someone chooses to do evil with it.
Even though it has been engineered to wreak havoc upon the human body, a sword is strictly inert metal until someone chooses to pick it up and strike. Or chooses not to do so.
There are, of course, a thousand sophistries spewed by those who wish to deny individuals the opportunity to choose. Which is an arrogant presumption of a divine scale.
This is what happens when you get old. You start thinking. Worse, you start telling everybody what you think.
Sleepy was nervous lest I express an unfortunate opinion to one of the Nine, whereupon, in high dudgeon, the offended party would abandon all sensibility and self-interest and deny to us forever the knowledge we need to repair the shadowgate opening on our native world. She misapprehends my ability to evoke the unfriendly response.
Before the werepanther came I might have stumbled. I might have expressed an actual opinion to a member of the File, some of whom are amongst the most reprehensible generals I have ever encountered. I doubt that, given the opportunity to rule unchallenged, many of them would be more enlightened than the hated Shadowmasters.
People are strange. The Children of the Dead are among the strangest.
I will not upset anyone. I will be diligently supportive of any policy Sleepy sets. I want to leave this Land of Unknown Shadows. I have things to accomplish before I hand these Annals over for the last time. Settling up with Lisa Daele Bowalk is just one. There is the Great General, Mogaba, the darkest traitor ever to stain the Company’s history. There is Narayan Singh. For Lady, there is Narayan and Soulcatcher. For both of us there is our child. Our wicked, wicked child.
I asked, “Is there anything besides Longshadow we could offer the File of Nine? Sweeten it just enough to make them move over beside Khang Phi and the Court of All Seasons?”
My sweetie shrugged. “I can’t imagine what.” She smiled enigmatically. “But it may not matter.”
I did not pay sufficient attention. Sometimes I overlook the new truths. These days my Company is managed by sly children and devious old women, not straightforward stalwarts like myself and the men of my time.
An Abode of Ravens:
As soon as I healed enough I asked Uncle Doj to let me resume the martial arts exercises I had given up many years ago. “Why are you interested now?” he asked. Sometimes I think he is more suspicious of me than I am of him.
“Because I have time. And the need. I’m as weak as a puppy. I want to get my strength back.”
“You chased me away when I offered.”
“I didn’t have time then. And you were so much more abrasive.”
“Ha.” He smiled. “You’re too kind.”
“You’re right. But I’m a prince.”
“A Prince of Darkness, Stone Soldier.” He knew that would get my goat. “But a lucky prince.” The old fart indulged in a smirk. “Several of your contemporaries have approached me recently, also motivated by anticipation of those hardships that can no longer be that far ahead.”
“Good.” Did he know something I did not? Probably a lot. “When and where?”
His grin became evil, revealing bad teeth. Which made me wonder if Sleepy had found anybody to fill the dentistry vacancy left by One-Eye’s passing. The old fool had not bothered taking on apprentices.
“When” was the crack of dawn and “where” was the unpaved street outside Doj’s small house, which he shared with Tobo’s uncle Thai Dei and several bachelor officers of local origin. My fellow victims were Willow Swan, the brothers Loftus and Cletus, who remain the Company’s principal architects and engineers, and the exiled ruling prince and princess of Taglios, the Prahbrindrah Drah and his sister the Radisha Drah. Those are not names, they are titles. Even after decades I do not know their personal designations. And they show no inclination to share.
“Where’s your pal Blade?” I asked Swan. For a while Blade had been Sleepy’s military envoy to the File of Nine, but I had heard that he had been recalled after One-Eye’s death. I had not seen him around, though.
“Old Blade’s got too much on his plate for anything like this.”
Loftus and Cletus both grumbled under their breaths but did not clarify. I had not seen much of them lately, either. I supposed they were working themselves to death building a city from scratch. Suvrin, who arrived just in time to hear what they mumbled, nodded vigorously. “She’s going to work us all till there’s nothing but grease spots left.” I am not sure about Suvrin. I have no trouble imagining him going around endlessly repeating the silent mantra, “Every day in every way I am going to become a better soldier.”
“Well, old Blade never was real ambitious,” Swan replied. “Except when it came to carving up priests.” He seemed to know what he was talking about even if it was not obvious to me.
Clete said, “If we’re getting the straight shit from Shivetya there’ll be a whole new crop in need of culling when we get home.”
The Prahbrindrah Drah and his sister edged closer, eager for hard news from home. Sleepy took no trouble to keep them posted. She did not have much of a diplomatic streak. I had best remind her that she will need their amity once we are back across the plain.
They were not handsome, those two. And the Radisha looked more like the Prince’s mother than his sister. But he had been under the ground with me while she rode the Taglian tiger and tried not to lose its reins to Soulcatcher. They strove to remain unobtrusive here, the Prince because he had been our active enemy in the field, the Princess because she had turned on us at the very last moment of our victory over the last Shadowmasters.
Sleepy fixed her for that.
Technically, the Radisha was our prisoner. Sleepy had abducted her. She and her brother will become tools of the Company once Sleepy stages our return. Everyone agrees. But I suspect that the royals have reservations.
“Rajadharma .” I said, bowing slightly. I could not resist the taunt, reminding them both that by attempting to betray us they had ended up failing to fulfill their duty to their subjects.
“Liberator.” The Radisha returned a tiny bow. I swear, the woman gets homelier by the month. “You appear to be healing well.”
“I’ve got a knack for coming back. But my bounce sure ain’t as fast or as high as it used to be. Guess it’s old age creeping up.” I lied and told her, “You’re looking well yourself. You both are. What have you been doing? I haven’t seen you for a while.”
The Prahbrindrah Drah said nothing. He remained inscrutable. He had been quiet and unexpressive since our resurrection. We had gotten along well, once. But times change. Neither of us were the men we had been during the Shadowmaster wars.
“You’re lying like a snake’s belly,” the Radisha told me. “I’m old and I’m ugly and I’m still ashamed of myself... But you’re telling the lie my soul wants to hear. Forget rajadharma , though. That accusation has no power to hurt me anymore. From outside. I still crucify myself. I know what I did. At the time I thought it was the right thing. The Protector manipulated me using my sense of rajadharma . Once we get back there you’ll see us in a different light.”
Rajadharma means the ruler’s obligation to serve the ruled. When the word is thrown into a ruler’s face, or is used as an epithet, it is a savage accusation of failure.
The Radisha is a hard, stubborn little woman. Unfortunately, she will have to get the better of a hard, stubborn, crazy, almost supremely powerful sorceress if she wants to fulfill her expectations for herself.
I glanced at her brother. The Prince’s expression had not changed but I sensed that he thought he appreciated the difficulties more fully than his sister did.
Uncle Doj whacked something with a practice sword. The loud crack ended our chatter. “Your canes, please. On the count, commence the Crane Kada.” He did not bother to explain what that was to the new guy.
Maybe two decades ago I had observed and briefly joined the Nyueng Bao exercises. Murgen was Annalist then. He had had Gota, Doj and his wife Sahra’s brother, Thai Dei, living with him. Doj expected me to remember.
About all I recalled of the Crane Kada was that it constituted the first and simplest of a dozen slow-motion dances incorporating all the formal steps and strokes of Doj’s school of fencing. The old priest led from up front, his back to his pupils. Although he was the eldest of us all, he moved with a precision and grace that verged on beauty. But when Thai Dei and Tobo joined us briefly, later, both outshone the old man. It was hard not to stop just to appreciate Tobo’s mastery.
The boy made me feel clumsy and inept just standing still.
Everything came so easily for him.
He had all the talents and skills he could possibly need. If any question remained, it concerned his character. A lot of good people had worked hard to make sure that he became a virtuous and upright man. Which he did appear to be. But he was a blade not yet tested. True temptation had not yet whispered in his ear.
I missed a step badly, stumbled. Uncle Doj laid his cane across the seat of my trousers as vigorously as if I had been an adolescent. His face remained bland but I suspected that he had wanted to do that for a long time.
I tried to concentrate.
The being on the huge wooden throne in the heart of the fortress at the center of the stone plain is a construct. Possibly he was created by the gods, who fought their wars upon that plain. Or perhaps his creators were the builders who constructed the plain—if they were not gods themselves. Opinions vary. Stories abound. The demon Shivetya himself is not disposed to be unstinting with the facts, or is, at best, inconsistent in their distribution. He has shown his latest chronicler several conflicting versions of ancient events. Old Baladitya has abandoned all hope of establishing an exact truth and, instead, seeks the deeper range of meaning underpinning what the golem does reveal. Baladitya understands that in addition to being foreign territory the past is, as history, a hall of mirrors that reflect the needs of souls observing from the present. Absolute fact serves the hungers of only a few disconnected people. Symbol and faith serve the rest.
Baladitya’s Company career duplicates his prior life. He writes things down. When he was a copyist at the Taglian Royal Library he wrote things down. Now, nominally, he is a prisoner of war. Chances are he has forgotten that. In reality he is freer today to pursue his own interests than ever he was at the library.
The old scholar lives and works around the demon’s feet. Which has to be as close to personal heaven as a Gunni historian can imagine. If the historian does not remain too determinedly wedded to Gunni religious doctrine.
Shivetya’s motives for refusing categorical declarations may stem from bitterness about his lot. By his own admission he has met most of the gods face-to-face. His recollections concerning them are even less flattering than those spicing most of Gunni mythology, where few of the gods are extolled as role models. Almost without exception the Gunni deities are cruel and selfish and untouched by any celestial sense of rajadharma.
A tall black man stepped into the light cast by Baladitya’s lamps. “Learned anything exciting today, old-timer?” The copyist’s fuel expenses are prodigal. He is indulged.
The old man did not respond. He is almost deaf. He exploits his infirmity to its limits. Not even Blade insists that he share routine camp chores any longer.
Blade asked again but the copyist’s nose remained close to the page on which he was writing. His penmanship is swift and precise. Blade cannot decipher the complicated ecclesiastical alphabet, except for some of those characters it shares with the only slightly simpler common script. Blade looked up into the golem’s eye. That appeared to be about the size of a roc’s egg. The adjective “baleful” fit it well. Not even naive old Baladitya has ever proposed that the demon be delivered from the restraint guaranteed by the daggers nailing its limbs to the throne. Neither has the demon ever encouraged anyone to release it. It has endured for thousands of years. It has the patience of stone.
Blade tried another approach. “I’ve had a runner come from the Abode of Ravens.” He prefers the native name for the Company’s base. It is so much more dramatic than Outpost or Bridgehead and Blade is a dramatic man fond of dramatic gestures. “The Captain says she expects to acquire the needed shadowgate knowledge shortly. Something is about to break loose in Khang Phi. She wants me to get cracking getting more treasure brought up. She wants you to finish finding everything out. She’ll be moving soon.”
The copyist grunted. “He’s easily bored, you know.”
“What?” Blade was startled, then angry. The old man had not heard a word.
“Our host.” The old man did not lift his eyes from the page. It would take them too long to readjust. “He’s easily bored.” Baladitya cared nothing about the Company’s plans. Baladitya was in paradise.
“You’d think we’d be a change that would distract him.”
“He’s been distracted by mortals a thousand times before. He’s still here. None of those people are, except those remembered in stone.” The plain itself, though older and vastly slower than Shivetya, might have a mind of its own. Stone remembers. And stone weeps. “Their very empires have been forgotten. How much chance is there that this time will be different?”
Baladitya sounded a little empty. Not unreasonable, Blade thought, considering the fact that he looked into the time abyss represented by the demon all the time. Talk about vanity and chasing after wind!
“Yet he’s helping us. More or less.”
“Only because he believes we’re the last mayflies he’ll see. Excepting the Children of Night when they raise up their Dark Mother. He’s convinced that we’re his last chance to escape.”
“And all we got to do to get his help is skrag the nasty Goddess, then put his ass away for the long night.” The demon’s gaze seemed to drill right through him. “Nothing to it. Piece of cake, as Goblin used to say. Though the saying doesn’t make any literal sense.” Blade lifted his fingers to his eyebrow in a salute to the demon. Whose eyes seemed to be smouldering now.
“God killing. That should be perfect work for you.”
Blade was unsure if Baladitya had spoken or Shivetya had entered his mind. He did not like what the observation implied. It echoed too closely Sleepy’s thinking, which is why his posh job in Khang Phi is gone and he has charge of operations on the plain, having abandoned banquets and down mattresses for iron rations and a bed of cold and silent stone shared only with unhappy, withered dreams, a crazy scholar, miscellaneous thieves and a house-sized lunatic demon half as old as time.
All his adult life Blade has been driven by a hatred for religion. He has an especial abhorrence for its retailers. Considering his current whereabouts and present occupation it seems likely that he should have restrained his impulse to share his opinions.
Blade could have sworn that, for an instant, a smile played across the demon’s features.
Blade chose not to comment.
He is a man of few words. He believes there is little point to speech. He believes the golem eavesdrops on his thoughts. Unless it has become so bored with ephemerals that it no longer pays attention.
That hint of amusement again. Blade’s speculation is not valid. He should know better. Shivetya is interested in every breath every brother of the Black Company takes. Shivetya has anointed these men as the death-givers.
“You need anything?” Blade asked the old man, resting a hand on his shoulder briefly. “Before I head down below?” The contact is entirely contrived. But Baladitya cares nothing about the touch, genuine or not.
Baladitya lifted his pen from his right hand with his left, flexed his fingers. “I suppose I should eat something. I can’t recall when last I put fuel on the fire.”
“I’ll see that you get something.” The something was sure to be rice and spice and golem manna. If there was anything Blade regretted about his life, it was having lived most of it in a part of the world where a majority of the population include a vegetarian diet within their religion and those who do not mainly eat fish or chicken. Blade is ready to start at whichever end of a spit-roast pig and not stop until he reaches the other.
Blade’s command, the thieves, the Company pathfinders, includes twenty-six of the outfit’s brightest and most trusted youngsters, all Children of the Dead. They need to be both smart and trustworthy because Sleepy wants to exploit the treasures in the caverns beneath the plain and because they really have to understand that the plain itself will not forgive them if they do the wrong thing. Shivetya has extended his favor. Shivetya sees everything and knows everything inside the gates of his universe. Shivetya is the soul of the plain. No one comes or goes without Shivetya’s countenance, or at least his indifference. And in the unlikely event that Shivetya remained indifferent to an unauthorized theft, there was nowhere for a thief to run but back to the shadowgate opening on the Land of Unknown Shadows. That was the only shadowgate under control and functioning properly. That was the only shadowgate not certain to kill the thief.
It was a long stroll across the great circle surrounding the crude throne. That floor is anything but crude. It is an exact one-eightieth scale representation of the plain outside, less the memorial pillars that were added in a later age by men who failed to possess even mythologized recollections of the builders. Hundreds of manhours have gone into clearing the accumulated dirt and dust off its surface so Shivetya can more clearly discern every detail of his kingdom. Shivetya’s throne rests upon a raised wheel one-eightieth the size of this.
Decades ago, Soulcatcher’s tampering triggered an earthquake that battered the fortress and split its floor into a vast crevasse. Outside the plain the disaster destroyed cities and killed thousands. Today the only memorial of what had been a gap in the floor a dozen yards wide and thousands of feet deep is a red stripe meandering past the throne. It dwindles every day. As does Shivetya, the mechanism ruling the plain heals itself.
The great circular model of the plain rises half a yard above the rest of the floor, which exists at the level of the plain outside.
Blade dropped off the edge of the wheel. He strode to a hole in the floor, the head of stairs leading down. They descend for miles, through caverns natural and created. The sleeping Goddess Kina lies at the deepest level, patiently awaiting the Year of the Skulls and the beginning of the Khadi Cycle, the destruction of the world. The wounded Goddess Kina.
Shadows stirred along the nearby wall. Blade froze. Who? No way that could be his people. Or, what?
Fear speared through Blade. Shadows in motion often presaged cruel, screaming death. Had those things found a way into the fortress? Their merciless feasting was not a horror he cared to witness ever again. And in particular he did not want to be the main course.
“The Nef,” Blade told himself as three humanoid shapes emerged from the darkness. He recognized them despite never having seen them before. Hardly anyone did, outside of dreams. Or maybe nightmares. The Nef were incredibly ugly. Though they might have been wearing masks. The several descriptions available did not agree except as to ugliness. He counted them off. “The Washane. The Washene. The Washone.” Names Shivetya had given Sleepy years ago. What did they mean? Did they mean anything at all? “How did they get in here?” The answer might be critical. Killer shadows might exploit the same opening.
As the Nef always did, they tried to communicate something. In the past their efforts inevitably failed. But this time their appeal seemed obvious. They did not want Blade to go down those stairs.
Sleepy, Master Santaraksita, and others who have been in contact with Shivetya believe that the Nef are artificial reproductions of the beings who created the plain. Shivetya brought them into existence because he longed for a connection with something approximating those whose artifice had wrought the great engine and its pathways between the worlds, because he was lonely.
Shivetya has lost his will to live. If he should perish, whatever he has created himself will go with him. The Nef are not yet prepared to embrace oblivion, despite the endless horror and tedium existence upon the plain imposes.
Blade spread his hands at his sides in a gesture of helplessness. “You guys need to polish your communication skills.” Not a sound came from the Nef but their growing frustration became palpable. Which had been a constant from the first time anyone had dreamt of them.
Blade stared. He did try to understand. He considered the ironies of the Black Company’s adventure across the glittering plain. He was an atheist himself. His journey had brought him face-to-face with a complete ecology of supernatural entities. And Tobo and Sleepy, whom he considered reliable witnesses otherwise, claimed actually to have seen the grim Goddess Kina who, myth suggested, lay imprisoned a mile beneath his feet.
Sleepy, of course, faced her crises of faith. A devout Vehdna monotheist, she never, ever encountered any worldly sustenance for her beliefs. Though supportive evidence is thin, the Gunni religion only creaks badly under the burden of the knowledge we have unearthed. The Gunni are polytheists accustomed to having their gods assume countless aspects and avatars, shapes and disguises. So much so that, in some myths, those gods seem to be murdering or cuckolding themselves. The Gunni have the flexibility to look at every discovery, as Master Santaraksita has, and declare new information to be just another way of proclaiming the same old divine truths.
God is god, whatever his name. Blade has seen those sentiments inlaid in the wall tiles in several places in Khang Phi.
Whenever anyone strays far from Shivetya, a ball of earthy brown glow tags along. It hovers above and behind one shoulder or another. The ball does not shed much light but in what otherwise would be utter darkness they are sufficient. They are the golem’s doing. Shivetya has powers he has forgotten how to use. He might be a small god himself if he was not nailed to his ancient throne.
Blade descended nearly a thousand steps before he encountered anyone headed upward. This soldier carried a heavy pack. “Sergeant Vanh.”
The soldier grunted. Already he was winded. No one made more than one trip a day. Blade gave Vanh the bad news because he might not run into him again for days. “Had a message from the Captain. We have to step it up. She’s almost ready to move.”
Vanh mumbled the sorts of things soldiers always do. He continued his climb. Blade wondered how Sleepy planned to haul off the mountain of treasure already accumulated up top. It was, for sure, enough to finance a pretty good war.
Another thousand steps downward, repeating his message several times. He left the stair at the level everyone called the Cave of the Ancients because of the old men interred there. Blade always stopped to visit his friend Cordy Mather. It was a ritual of respect. Cordy was dead. Most of the others confined in the cave remained alive, enmeshed in stasis spells. Somehow, during the long Captivity, Mather had shed the spells confining him. And success had cost him his life. He had not been able to find his way out.
Most of the old men in the cave meant nothing to Blade or the Company. Only Shivetya knew who they were or why they had been interred. Certainly they had irked someone armed with the power to confine them. Several corpses, though, had been Company brothers when still alive. Several others had been captives before Soulcatcher buried the Company. Death had found them because, evidently, Cordy Mather had tried to wake them up. Touching the Captured without sorcerous precautions inevitably caused the death of the touched.
Blade resisted the urge to kick the sorcerer Longshadow. That madman was a commodity of incalculable worth in the Land of Unknown Shadows. The Company had grown strong and wealthy because of him. It continued to prosper. “How you doing, Shadowmaster? Looks like you’ll be here a while yet.” Blade assumed the sorcerer could not hear him. He could not recall having heard anything when he was under the enchantment himself. He could not recall having been aware in any way, though Murgen said there were times when it looked like the Captured were aware of their surroundings. “They haven’t pushed the bidding high enough yet. I hate to admit it but you really are a popular guy. In your own special way.” Not a generous or forgiving or even empathetic man, Blade stood with hands on hips staring down at Longshadow. The sorcerer looked like a skeleton barely covered by diseased skin. His face was locked into a scream. Blade told him, “They still say, ‘All Evil Dies There an Endless Death.’ Especially when they’re talking about you.”
Not far from Longshadow is the Company’s other insane sorcerer prisoner, the Howler. This one presents a greater temptation. Blade saw no value whatsoever to keeping Howler alive. The little shit has a history of treachery that goes way, way back and a character unlikely to change because of this confinement. He survived a similar Captivity before. That one endured for centuries.
Tobo did not need to learn any of the Howler’s evil crap. And Tobo’s education was the only excuse Blade had heard for letting the little ragbag live.
Blade paid his deepest respects to Mather. Cordy was a good friend for a long time. Blade owes Cordy his life. He wished the evil fortune had befallen him. Cordy wanted to live. Blade believes he is proceeding on inertia.
Blade continued his descent into the earth, past the treasure caverns that were being looted to finance the Company’s homegoing, it was hoped on a spectacularly memorable scale.
Blade is not much given to emotional vapors or seizures of fear. He has a cool enough head to have survived for years as a Company agent inside Longshadow’s camp. But as he moved deeper into the earth he began to twitch and sweat. His pace slackened. He passed the last known cavern. Nothing lay below that but the ultimate enemy, the Mother of Night herself. She was the enemy who would still be waiting once all the other, lesser adversaries had been brushed aside or extinguished.
To Kina, the Black Company is an annoying buzz in the ear, a mosquito that has gotten away with taking a sip or two of blood and has not had the good sense to get the hell away.
Blade slowed again. The light following him kept weakening. Where once he could see clearly twenty steps ahead now he could see only ten, the farther four seeming to be behind the face of a thickening black fog. Here the darkness seemed almost alive. Here the darkness felt as though it was under much greater pressure, the way water seemed to exert more as you swam deeper beneath its surface.
Blade found it harder to breathe. He forced himself to do so, deeply and rapidly, then went on, against the insistence of instinct. A silver chalice took form in the fog, just five steps below. It stood about a foot tall, a simple tall cup made of noble metal. Blade had placed it there. It marked the lowest step he had yet been able to reach.
Now each step downward seemed to take place against the resistance of liquid tar. Each step brought the darkness crushing in harder. The light from behind was too weak to reach even one step beyond the chalice.
Blade makes this effort frequently. He accounts it exercise for his will and courage. Each descent he manages to make it as far as the chalice mostly by being angry that he cannot push past it.
This time he tried something different. He threw a handful of coins collected from one of the treasure caves. His arm had no strength but gravity had not lost its power nor had sound been devoured by the darkness. The coins tinkled away down the stairwell. But not for long. After a moment it sounded like they were rolling around on a floor. Then they were silent. Then a tiny little voice from far, far away cried, “Help.”
The Land of Unknown Shadows:
The physical geography of the Land of Unknown Shadows closely recollects that of our own world. The essential differences stem from the impact of man.
The moral and cultural topographies of the worlds are completely different, though. Even the Nyueng Bao still have trouble making any real connection here—despite the fact that they and the Children of the Dead share common ancestors. But the Nyueng Bao escaped Maricha Manthara Dhumraksha and his kin centuries ago, then developed as a cultural island constantly washed by alien waves.
Hsien proper spans roughly the same territories as what were known as the Shadowlands at home when things were going well for the Shadowmasters. The farther reaches of Hsien, that none of us have visited, are more heavily populated than our own. In olden times every town here boasted its kernel of resistance to the Shadowmasters. Few of those groups communicated because of travel restrictions imposed by the master race. Still, when the uprising did come there were local champions enough to ensure success.
The flight of the last Shadowmasters left a power vacuum. The resistance chieftains anointed themselves to fill it. Hsien remains in the custody of their descendants, scores of warlords in constant conflict, few of whom ever get any stronger. Any who appear to be gaining strength are torn apart by their neighbors.
The File of Nine is an anonymous, loose assembly of senior warlords, supposedly drawn one each from the nine provinces of Hsien. This is not true and never has been—though few outside the Nine know it. That is just one more fiction helping keep the current state of chaos alive.
Popularly, the File of Nine is seen as a cabal of secret masters who control everything. The File of Nine would love that to be true but, in reality, they have very little power. Their situation leaves them with few tools they can use to enforce their will. Any real effort to impose anything would betray their identities. So they mostly issue bulls and pretend to speak for Hsien. Sometimes people listen. And sometimes they listen to the monks of Khang Phi. Or to the Court of All Seasons. So each must be wooed.
The Black Company is feared mainly because it is a joker in the warlord deck. It has no local allegiance. It could jump any direction for any alien reason. Worse, it is reputed to include powerful wizards assisting skilled soldiers led by competent commanders and sergeants, none of whom are at all handicapped by excesses of empathy or compassion.
What popularity the Company enjoys essentially arises from its capacity to deliver the last Shadowmaster to the justice of Hsien. And among peasants, from the fact that nervous warlords have reined in their squabbles amongst themselves considerably while they have this unpredictable monster crouched, growing rapidly, to their south.
All the lords and leaders of Hsien, in the last, would prefer that the Company went away. Our presence places too much strain on the state of things as they are and always have been.
I attached myself to the deputation headed for Khang Phi even though I was not yet completely recovered. I would never be one-hundred percent again. I had some blurring in my right eye. I had acquired some truly intimidating burn scars. I would never regain the full range of motion in the fingers of my right hand. But I was convinced that I could be an asset in our negotiations for the shadowgate secrets.
Only Sahra agreed with me. But Sahra is our foreign minister. Only she has the patience and tact to deal with such fractious folk as the File of Nine—part of whose problem with us is that our women do more than cook and lie on their backs.
Of course, of Lady, Sleepy, Sahra and the Radisha I suspect only Sahra can heat water without burning it. And she may have forgotten how by now.
The Company on the move, bound for the intellectual heart of Hsien, was a terror to behold, judging by the response of peasants along the way. And that despite the fact that our party, guards included, numbered just twenty-one. Human souls.
Tobo’s shadowy friends surrounded and paced us, in such numbers that it was impossible for them to remain unseen all the time. Old fears and superstitions exploded in our wake, then terror ran ahead far faster than we could travel. People scattered when we approached. It made no difference that Tobo’s night pals were well-behaved. Superstition completely outweighed any practical evidence.
Had we been more numerous we would not have gotten past Khang Phi’s gate. Even there, among supposed intellectuals, the fear of the Unknown Shadows was thick enough to slice.
Sahra had had to agree, long ago, that neither Lady nor One-Eye nor Tobo would enter the Repose of Knowledge. The monks were particularly paranoid about sorcerers. Hitherto it had suited Sleepy to comply with their wishes. And none of those three were part of our party when we arrived at the Lower Gate of Khang Phi.
There was a strange young woman in our midst. She used the name Shikhandini, Shiki for short. She could easily arouse almost any man who did not know she was Tobo in disguise. Nobody bothered to tell me what or why but Sahra was up to something. Tobo was, obviously, an extra card she wanted tucked up her sleeve. Moreover, she suspected several of the Nine of harboring evil ambitions which would soon flower.
What? Men of power possessed of secret agendas? No! That does not seem possible.
Khang Phi is a center of learning and spirituality. It is a repository for knowledge and wisdom. It is extremely ancient. It survived the Shadowmasters. It commands the respect of all the Children of the Dead, throughout the Land of Unknown Shadows. It is neutral ground, a part of no warlord’s demesne. Travelers bound toward Khang Phi, or returning home therefrom, are in theory immune.
Theory and practice are sometimes at variance. Therefore we never let Sahra travel without obvious protection.
Khang Phi is built against the face of a mountain. It rises a thousand whitewashed feet into the bellies of permanent clouds. The topmost structures cannot be seen from below.
At the same site in our world a barren cliff broods over the southern entrance to the only good pass through the mountains known as the Dandha Presh.
A life misspent making war left me wondering if the place had not begun its existence as a fortress. It certainly commanded that end of the pass. I looked for the fields necessary to sustain its population. And they were there, clinging to the sides of the mountains in terraces like stairsteps for splay-legged giants. Ancient peoples carried the soil in from leagues away, a basket at a time, generation after generation. No doubt the work goes on today.
Master Santaraksita, Murgen and Thai Dei met us outside the ornate Lower Gate. I had not seen them for a long time, though Murgen and Thai Dei attended the funeral ceremonies for Gota and One-Eye. I missed them because I was unconscious at the time. Fat old Master Santaraksita never went anywhere anymore. That elderly scholar was content to end his days in Khang Phi, pretending to be the Company’s agent. Here he was among his own kind. Here he had found a thousand intellectual challenges. Here he had found people as eager to learn from him as he was eager to learn from them. He was a man who had come home.
He welcomed Sleepy with open arms. “Dorabee! At last.” He insisted on calling her Dorabee because it was the first name he had known her by. “You must let me show you the master library while you’re here! It absolutely beggars that pimple we managed in Taglios.” He surveyed the rest of us. Merriment deserted him. Sleepy had brought the ugly boys along. The kind of guys he believed would use books for firewood on a chilly night. Guys like me, who bore scars and were missing fingers and teeth and had skin colors the likes of which were never seen in the Land of Unknown Shadows.
Sleepy told him, “I didn’t come for a holiday back in the stacks, Sri. One way or another I’ve got to get that shadowgate information. The news I’m getting from the other side isn’t encouraging. I need to get the Company back into action before it’s too late.”
Santaraksita nodded, looked around for eavesdroppers, winked and nodded again.
Willow Swan leaned back, looked up, asked me, “Think you can make it to the top?”
“Give me a few days.” Actually, I am in better shape now than I was that evil night. I have lost a lot of weight and have put on muscle.
I still get winded easily, though.
Swan said, “Lie all you want, old man.” He dismounted, handed his reins to one of the youngsters beginning to swarm around. They were all boys between eight and twelve, all as silent as if they had had their vocal cords cut. They all wore identical pale brown robes. Parents unable to provide for them had donated them to Khang Phi as infants. These had surpassed a particular milestone on their path to becoming monks. We were unlikely to see anyone younger.
Swan picked up a stone two inches in diameter. “I’m going to throw this when we get up top. I want to watch it fall.”
Parts of Swan never grew up. He still skips stones across ponds and rivers. He tried to teach me the art coming to Khang Phi. My hand and fingers will no longer conform to the shape of a proper skipping stone. There is a lot they cannot accomplish anymore. Managing a pen while writing is chore enough.
I miss One-Eye.
“Just don’t bomp some asshole warlord on the noggin. Most of them don’t like us much already.” They were afraid of us. And they could find no way to manipulate us. They kept giving us provisions and letting us recruit in hopes we will go away eventually. Leaving Longshadow behind. We did not inform them that local financing would not be needed to underwrite our campaign beyond the plain.
After four hundred years it has become a given: You keep everybody outside just a little bit nervous. And you do not tell them anything they do not need to know.
Longshadow. Maricha Manthara Dhumraksha. He has several other names here as well. None indicate popularity. As long as we have the ability to deliver him in chains the warlords will tolerate almost anything. Twenty generations of ancestors cry out for justice.
I suspect Longshadow’s wickedness has grown with the retelling, thereby making giants of the heroes who drove him out.
Though they are soldiers themselves the warlords do not understand us. They fail to recognize the fact that they are soldiers of a different breed, drawn on by a smaller destiny.
The Land of Unknown Shadows:
Swan and I stood looking out a window outside the conference hall where we would engage the File of Nine in negotiations. Eventually. It took them a while to sneak into Khang Phi, then change their disguises so their identities would remain unknown. We saw nothing below but mist. Swan did not waste his stone. I said, “I thought I was back in shape. I was wrong. I ache all over.”
Swan said, “They say some people here go their whole lives without ever moving more than a floor or two after they finish their apprenticeship and get their assignments.”
“Kind of people that balance out you and me,” I said. Swan had not traveled as far as I had but at a world’s remove an extra few thousand miles does not seem important. I tried to make out the rocky ground we had traversed approaching Khang Phi. The mist just seemed darker when I looked down.
“Thinking about taking the easy way back down?” Swan asked.
“No. I’m thinking being isolated like this might leave you with a very limited worldview.” Not to mention the impact of the scarcity of females in Khang Phi. The few there are belong to an order of celibate nuns who care for the donated infants, the very old and the very sick. The rest of the population consists of monks, all of whom were donated and all of whom are sworn to chastity, too. The more fanatic brothers render themselves physically incapable of yielding to temptation. Which makes most of my brothers shudder and consider them more bizarre than Tobo’s shadowy friends. No soldier likes the thought of losing his best friend and favorite toy.
“A narrow view can be as much a strength as a weakness, Liberator,” a voice observed from behind us. We turned. Sleepy’s friend, Surendranath Santaraksita, was joining us. The scholar has gone native, adopting local garb and assuming the Khang Phi haircut—which is no hair at all—but only a deaf and blind man would take him for a local monk. His skin is more brown and less translucent than that of any native and his features are shaped more like mine and Swan’s. “That mist and their narrowness of vision allows the monks to avoid forming worldly attachments. Thus their neutrality remains beyond reproach.”
I did not mention Khang Phi’s one-time role as an apologist for and collaborator with the reign of the Shadowmasters. That embarrassing dab of history was being expunged by the acids of time and relentless lie.
Santaraksita was happy. He was convinced that in this place learned men did not have to prostitute themselves to temporal powers in order to remain scholars. He believed even the File of Nine deferred to the wisdom of the eldest monks. He was unable to see that if the Nine acquired more power Khang Phi’s relationship to the File would soon lapse into subservience. Master Santaraksita is brilliant but naive.
“How’s that?” I asked him.
“These monks are so innocent of the world that they don’t try to impose anything on it.”
“Yet the File of Nine presume to speak from here.” The File enjoy issuing bulls which are, more often than not, ignored by the population and warlords.
“They will, yes. The Elders want them to. In hopes that a little wisdom will rub off before their power becomes more than symbolic.”
I said nothing about leading horses to water. I made no observations concerning the wisdom of backing a cabal of secret masters in preference to one strongman or the remnant aristocracy of the Court of All Seasons. I did admit, “It does look like they’re trying to do what’s best for Hsien. But I don’t trust anybody who’ll bet their pot on guys who hide behind masks.” No need to tell him the File have no secrets from us. Little that they do or discuss goes unremarked by Tobo’s familiars. None of their identities are secrets to us.
We operate on the assumption that both the File and the other warlords have placed spies among our recruits. Which explains why there is little resistance to our recruiting amongst the Children of the Dead.
It is not difficult to identify most of the spies. Sleepy shows them what she wants them to see. Being a spiteful, vengeful little witch, I am sure she plans to use those spies cruelly at some later time.
She worries me. She has her own old hatreds to redress but their objects escaped life unpunished a long time ago. But there is always the chance she might choose somebody else to take the heat, which would not be to the Company’s advantage.
I asked Santaraksita, “What did you want?”
“Nothing special.” His face went coolly neutral. He is Sleepy’s friend. I make him uncomfortable. He has read my Annals. Despite what Sleepy has dragged him through he cannot yet come to grips with the cruel realities of our sort of life. I am sure that he will not go home with us. “I did hope to see Dorabee again before you went into conference. It could be important.”
“I don’t know what happened to her. Shiki’s missing, too. They were supposed to meet us here.” Local mores made it impossible for women to share quarters with men. Even Sahra has to room separately from Murgen, though they are legally married. And Shikhandini’s presence saddled Sahra with special obligations. She wanted the holy men distracted but not to the point where they went berserk. Just enough, maybe, so they would give way on a subtle point or two. Though distraction would not be Shiki’s principal mission.
Master Santaraksita wrung his hands briefly, then folded his arms. His hands disappeared into the sleeves of his robe. He was worried. I looked closer. He knew something. I glanced at Swan. Swan shrugged.
Murgen and Thai Dei puffed into the room. Murgen demanded, “Where are they?” Thai Dei looked worried but said nothing. He would not. The man seldom says anything. It was a pity his sister could not learn from his example.
Thai Dei knew something, too.
“Haven’t shown yet,” Swan said.
“The File of Nine will be angry,” I added. “Are Sleepy and Sahra dealing some kind of game?”
Santaraksita backed away nervously. “The Unknowns aren’t here yet, either.”
My companions were a diverse bunch. Once Sleepy arrived we would include five races. Six counting Santaraksita as one of us. Sleepy believes our sheer diversity intimidates the File of Nine.
Sleepy entertains other notions even more strange.
I do not know why she thought cowing them would mean anything. All we needed from them was their permission to research the knowledge needed to mend and manipulate shadowgates. The monks of Khang Phi were willing to share that knowledge. The stronger we grow the more eagerly the monks want us gone. They are more frightened of the heresies we propagate than they are of any armies we might bring back later.
The latter dread keeps the warlords awake at night. But they do want us gone, too, because the stronger we grow here the more real and immediate a threat do they perceive. And I do not blame them for thinking that way. I would do so myself, in their boots. The entirety of human experiences argues on behalf of suspicion of strangers laden with weapons.
The womenfolk made their advent. Willow Swan spread his arms wide and declaimed dramatically, “Where have you been?” He struck a second pose and tried the line another way. Then he went with a third. Making fun.
Sahra told Thai Dei, “Your daughter kept flirting with the acolytes we encountered along the way.”
I glanced at Shiki, frowned. The girl seemed almost ethereal, not at all vampish. I blinked but the fuzzy quality did not go away. I blamed my damaged eye. The girl seemed more a distracted ghost than a boy in disguise having fun with a role.
In Hsien’s eyes Thai Dei passed as Shiki’s father because it was well known that Sahra had just the one son. Her brother, Thai Dei, has managed to remain so obscure that even at the Abode of Ravens the locals never raise a question about the fact that the seldom-seen Shikhandini would have had to have been born while her father was buried beneath the plain. Nor did anyone seem much inclined to ask what had become of the girl’s mother. She could be dismissed with a few vague, angry mutters.
Shiki was always empty-headed, always in minor trouble, always considered a threat only to the equilibrium of young men’s minds.
Shiki solidified. She pouted. She said, “I wasn’t flirting, Father. I was just talking.” Her words should have been argumentative but just sounded flat, rote.
“You were told not to speak to the monks. That’s the law here.”
The act never stopped once it started. There might be watchers. But it was an act. And a pretty good one, at least to those of us unaccustomed to dealing with very young women.
Master Santaraksita kept whispering to Sleepy. He must have said something she wanted to hear because her face lit up like a beacon. She did not bother to report to the Annalist, though. These Captains are all alike. Always playing their hands close to their chest. Except for me, of course. I was a paragon of openness in my time.
Thai Dei and his daughter continued to squabble till he issued some loud diktat in heated Nyueng Bao that left her sulking and silent.
The Land of Unknown Shadows:
The Secret Masters
An old, old monk opened the door to the meeting chamber. The task was a great chore for him. He beckoned with one frail hand.
This was my first visit to Khang Phi but I knew him by his robes, which were dark orange edged with black. They distinguished him as one of the four or five eldest of Khang Phi. His presence made it clear that Khang Phi’s monks were deeply interested in this meeting’s outcome. Otherwise some midlevel sixty-year-old would have handled the door and then would have hung on to manage the acolytes who were supposed to attend to the comfort of both us and the Nine. Master Santaraksita smiled. Maybe he had had something to do with this meeting having been invested with importance.
Sahra approached the old man. She bowed, murmured a few words. He responded. They knew one another and he did not disdain her for her sex. The monks might be wiser than I had thought.
We soon learned that she had asked if everyone could reduce the ceremony that attends all functions of the Children of the Dead. Formalities imbue every occasion with elaborate ritual. People must not have had much that was practical to do during the reign of the Shadowmasters.
We barbarians do not know the proper forms. The Children of the Dead hoist their noses around us—then sigh in relief because uncomfortable business gets handled quickly when the Black Company is on the far side of the carpet.
Our host scowled at Shikhandini. He was old and bitter and narrow. But! Behold! Not so old and bitter and narrow that a shimmering smile from a beautiful girl would not put a momentary twinkle in his eye. Never that old.
From earliest times our enemies have accused us of fighting dirty, of dealing in trickery and treachery. And they are right. Absolutely right. We are shameless. And this was about as dirty as we could get, having Tobo vamp these old men. They knew women only in the most academic fashion. It was easier than plinking blind men with arrows.
It was all so effortless. Shiki just seemed to float around, not quite all there, not paying much attention, showing none of the enjoyment I expected of Tobo. I mean, what man his age does not enjoy making fools of wise old men? Everything I knew about Tobo suggested he would enjoy that more than most.
I was getting curious. What was going on? Sleepy claimed the kid was along because she wanted a wizard handy. Just in case. Being paranoid. Having been made that way by lifetimes of treachery from outside. And Khang Phi law would keep Tobo out if he came as himself. She wanted me to believe.
There would be more. Much, much more. I understand the sneaky little witch better than she suspects. And I approve, thoroughly.
“Move,” Sleepy said. She was uncomfortable in Khang Phi. The place is infested with the trappings of strange religions.
The chamber we entered undoubtedly served some high ceremonial purpose when not on loan to the File of Nine. That end where the warlords waited could pass for an altar and its associated clutter. The warlords had seated themselves above us, in front of the possible altar, where five large stone seats were in place permanently. Seven of the Nine were on hand. Chairs had been dragged in for the surplus pair, presumably the junior members of the quorum. All seven wore masks and disguises, which seems to be customary with secret masters—and here possibly a legacy of the Shadowmasters who had found masks and disguises very fashionable. In this case that was a waste of effort. But they did not need to know that. Not right away.
Lady has a talent for rooting out true names and identities. She learned in a deadly school. She has taught Tobo some of her tricks. He unearthed the identities of the members of the File, using his supernatural friends. Knowing who we might find, in the event we developed a corporate inclination to surprise somebody, should prove to be a valuable bargaining tool.
Sahra had dealt with the File before. They were accustomed to her impatience with ceremony. They paid attention when she stepped forward.
Master Santaraksita trailed her by three paces. He would serve as a specialist translator. Though the Children of the Dead and the Nyueng Bao spoke the same language in times past, separation and circumstance have conspired to make misunderstandings common. Santaraksita would have to point out those instances when the parties were using the same word with different meanings.
Sleepy moved a few steps forward but stayed closer to the rest of us than to the warlords.
Sleepy started humming. She was determined to appear cheerful despite being surrounded by unrepentant heathens.
Sahra stepped forward again. She asked, “Are the File ready to stop objecting to the Company gaining the knowledge we need to repair shadowgates? You have to understand that we won’t leave Hsien without it. We’re still prepared to turn over the criminal Dhumraksha.” The same offer had been before the File all along. They wanted something more but never articulated it—though supernatural espionage revealed that they hoped to gain our support in establishing a much stronger File position. Only they did not dare suggest that themselves before the witnesses that always exist when negotiations take place in Khang Phi.
The masks faced Sahra’s way. None of the Unknowns responded. You could sense their exasperation. Lately they had begun to believe, on no creditable evidence, that they had some power over us. Probably because we had not gotten into the sort of pissing contest with any of our neighbors that would have demonstrated the lethal inequalities between their forces and ours. We would devour most of the local armies.
Sleepy stepped past Santaraksita, took position beside Sahra. In passible local dialect she said, “I am Captain of the Black Company. I will speak.” Facing a warlord wearing a mask surmounted by a crane’s head, she continued, “Tran Thi Kim-Thoa, you are Last Entered of the File.” The warlords stirred. “You are young. Possibly you know no one whose life and pain would regain meaning if Maricha Manthara Dhumraksha came back here to atone for his sins. I understand that. Youth is always impatient with the pasts of its elders—seven when that past crushes down upon youth’s shoulders.”
Seven silk-clad butts shifted nervously, filling an extended silence with soft rustles. All us Company people grinned, baring our fangs. Exactly like those rock apes around Outpost, trying to intimidate one another.
Sleepy had named the newest of the Nine. His identity would be no secret to the other eight. They had chosen him when last there was an opening in their circle. He would be ignorant of their identities—unless some of the older warlords had chosen to reveal themselves. Each warlord normally knew only those elected to the File after themselves. By naming the Last Entered, Sleepy offered another threat while endangering just the one Unknown.
Sleepy beckoned. “Croaker.” I stepped forward. “This is Croaker. He was Captain before me and Dictator to All the Taglias. Croaker, before us we have Tran Huu Dung and six others of the File of Nine.” She did not specify this Tran’s position in the File. His name caused another stir, though.
She beckoned Swan. “This is Willow Swan, a longtime associate of the Black Company. Willow, I present Tran Huu Nhan and six others of the File of Nine. Tran is a common patronym in Hsien. There are a lot of Trans among the Nine, none of them related by blood.”
The next name she offered, after introducing Willow Swan, was Tran Huu Nhang. I began to wonder how they kept themselves sorted out. Maybe by weight. Several of the File carried some surplus poundage.
When Sleepy named the last of the Trans of the File, Tran Lan-Anh, their spokesman, the First, interrupted her with a request for time to confer. Sleepy bowed, offered him no further provocation. We knew that he was Pham Thi Ly of Ghu Phi, an excellent general with a good reputation among his troops, a believer in a unified Hsien, but old enough to have lost his zest for struggle. By the slightest of nods Sleepy let him know that his identity was no secret, either.
Sleepy announced, “We have no interest in coming back to Hsien once we return to the plain.” As though that was some dear secret we had held clutched close to our hearts forever. Any spy among us would have reported that we just wanted to go home. “Like the Nyueng Bao who fled to our world, we came here only because we had no choice.” Doj would not have accepted her assessment of Nyueng Bao history, brief as it might be. In his eye his immigrant ancestors had been a band of adventurers similar to the forebrethren of the Black Company, who had gone forth from Khatovar. “We’re strong now. We’re ready to go home. Our enemies there will cringe, unmanned by the news of our coming.”
I did not believe that for an instant. Soulcatcher would be pleased to see us. A good squabble would relieve the tedium of her daily grind. Being an all-powerful ruler actually takes most of the fun out of life. In the heyday of her dark empire, my wife had made that discovery, too. Management trivia consumes you.
Lady hated it enough to walk away. But misses it now.
Sleepy said, “We lack only the knowledge to repair our shadowgate, so that our world isn’t overrun by the Host of the Unforgiven Dead.”
Our spokespeople never fail to harp on that point. It remains central to every statement of our purpose. We would wear the Nine down. They would give in so they would not have to hear about it anymore. They were, however, extremely paranoid about the risk of another otherworld invasion.
If they were hard asses they could try to outstubborn us, hoping we would give up, go home, and have our shadowgate fall apart behind us. That would end our threat permanently.
The power of the File lies in the anonymity of its members. When warlords get together to plot they are restrained by the possibility that among them is one of the Nine. The File publishes any schemes it uncovers, thereby focusing the wrath of warlords not included in the plan. It is a clumsy system but it has kept conflict limited for generations by making it difficult to forge alliances.
Sleepy could expose the File. If they were betrayed, chaos would come baying right behind. Few warlords like having their ambitions held in check—though restraints had to be imposed on all those other villains.
The Unknowns did not like being bullied, either. Those whose names had been betrayed soon grew so angry the elder monk placed himself between parties as a reminder of where we were.
Being an old soldier, I began a swift inventory of resources available for a fight if some warlord was dim enough to force one. I was not reassured. Our greatest asset was missing.
Where did Shiki go? When did she go? Why?
I needed to keep a closer eye on my surroundings. An oversight this big could turn fatal.
One masked warlord bounded out of his chair. He yipped and slapped his buttocks. We gaped. Silence fell. The man began to gather his dignity. A trill of faint high-pitched laughter sparkled in the silence. Something with humming diamond wings darted about too fast to be made out clearly. It left the room before anybody could react.
Sahra observed, “Most of the Hidden Realm will follow us when we leave. Possibly so much of it that Hsien will no longer be the Land of Unknown Shadows.”
Master Santaraksita murmured in her ear. That irked the warlords and the old referee elder, too. The monk was particularly unhappy because the ladies kept spinning those implied threats. But he was cautious. The Company was up to something new. This was frightening. Had the outsiders run out of patience? All Hsien nurtures some fears of the sleeping tiger of the Abode of Ravens. And we make a point of encouraging them.
When I looked around again there was Shikhandini. How?...
I studied her, expecting to see some deviltry suggested by her stance or expression. There was nothing there. The kid was stone cold indifferent.
Sahra waved Santaraksita away. He scurried over to Sleepy, murmured some more. Sleepy nodded but did not do anything else. That left the old scholar looking like he was about to panic.
Shiki’s disappearance and reappearance made it more obvious than ever that there was something going on. Obvious to the former Captain, anyway. And the former Captain had been told nothing beforehand.
The ladies were into one of their schemes. And that would be the real reason they wanted Shiki along. Shiki brought an awesome array of weapons into the game.
And they had had me convinced that they just wanted the magic handy in case somebody suffered an impulse to be unpleasant, which happens all too frequently when we are around.
The Radisha and the Prahbrindrah Drah still mourn their treacherous impulses.
I told Swan, “This business was a lot more fun when I was the one scheming and being mysterious.”
The First of the File said, “Will you do us the courtesy of withdrawing for a moment, Captain? Ambassador? I believe a consensus may be within reach.”
While we waited in the antechamber, Swan asked, “Why did he bother asking us to leave? After what happened? Does he really think we won’t know what’s going on in there?” Things moved in the corners of my vision. Strings of shadow snaked over the walls until I tried to look at them directly. Then, of course, nothing was visible.
“Possibly he didn’t catch all the implications.” Like the fact that something would be eavesdropping on every word he spoke until the Black Company left the Land of Unknown Shadows. At this late date anything he tried to pull together would be a complete wasted effort.
“Let’s go,” Sleepy said. “Move out. Croaker. Swan. Quit jacking your jaws and get moving.”
“Moving where?” I asked.
“Downstairs. Home. Get going.”
“But...” This was not what I expected. A good Black Company trick ends up with lots of fire and bloodshed, the vast majority of both not inflicted upon us.
Sleepy growled. It was a pure animal sound. “If I’m going to be Captain I’m going to be Captain. I’m not going to discuss or debate or request preapproval from the old folks. Get moving.”
She had a point. I had made it a few times myself, in my day. I had to set an example. I went.
“Good luck,” Sleepy told Sahra. She strode toward the nearest stairwell. I followed. Presumably better trained by Sleepy’s predecessor, the others were clattering down those ancient stairs already. Only Sahra and Master Santaraksita remained behind, though Shiki did hover around Sahra briefly, as though interested in a parting hug.
“Interesting,” Sleepy observed. “It’s such a good mimic that it almost forgets itself.”
She was talking to herself, not to the Captain-Emeritus. He no longer needed an explanation. He had seen this stuff before. The ladies were going to take the information that we needed. Santaraksita had located it and had tagged it and now our own people were in the process of collecting it. Tobo was somewhere else, hard at work. One of his spooky friends was masquerading as Shikhandini.
All of which meant that Sleepy was better prepared to travel than I had supposed. You miss so much when you are laid up. Things continued to stir in the corners. Movements persisted at the edge of my vision. Always there was nothing to be seen when I looked directly. Nevertheless...
Khang Phi had been conquered. That unvanquishable fortress of enlightenment had been taken and its occupants did not yet know. Most might never find out—assuming the real Shikhandini successfully completed the real mission given to Tobo by Sleepy and Sahra. Hard to imagine becoming badly winded by running downhill. I managed. Those stairs went down forever, much farther than when I had gone up at a more leisurely pace. I began to develop cramps. Behind me Sahra and Sleepy kept right on barking and mocking and pushing like they were not almost as old as me.
I spent a lot of time wondering what had compelled me to come along. I was too old for this shit. The Annals did not need to record every little detail. I could have done this One-Eye’s way. “They went to Khang Phi and got the knowledge we needed to fix the shadowgates.”
Some deep-voiced bell bonged far above. No one had enough breath to explain but no explanation was needed. An alarm was being sounded.
Who else? Though I could imagine scenarios where the File of Nine might be guilty of trying to snuff the Company brain trust.
It did not matter. I reminded myself that Khang Phi is bereft of arms. That the monks abhor violence. That they always yield to strength, then seduce it with reason and wisdom.
Yes, sometimes it does take a while.
I did not feel reassured. I spend too much time hanging around with guys like me.
The air began to whisper and rustle, like a gentle breeze in a time of falling leaves. The sound started in the dimness far below. It rose toward us, met and passed us before I had any real chance to become afraid. I had a brief impression of passing two-dimensional, black, transparent forms accompanied by a touch of cold and a whiff of old mold, then autumn was gone on to adventures far above.
At times the stairway passed behind the outer face of Khang Phi. Windows presented themselves then. Each was filled with an exquisite view of grey mist. Shapes moved within the greyness, never defined. They did not need definition for me to know that I had no interest in making the acquaintance of anything that did not mind having a thousand feet of wet air beneath its toes.
Several times I saw Shikhandini drift downward or rise through the fog. Once she saw me watching, paused, smiled and showed three slim fingers in a delicate wave.
The genuine Tobo was not shy any digits.
What I did not see during our entire descent was even one member of the Khang Phi community. They all had business elsewhere when we passed by.
“How much farther?” I panted, thinking it was a good thing I had lost all that weight while I was recuperating.
I got no answer. No one wanted to waste the breath.
It proved to be much farther than I had hoped. It always is when you are running away.
Ten Finger Shikhandini was waiting with the horses and the rest of our gang when we stumbled out of the unguarded Lower Gate. Animals and escort were ready to travel. All we had to do was mount up and go.
Tobo would sustain the Shiki role till we were home again. The Children of the Dead did not need to know that he was she.
Tobo told his mother, “Sri Santaraksita refused to come.”
“I didn’t think he would. That’s all right. He did his part. He’ll be happier here after we’re gone.”
Sleepy agreed. “He’s found his paradise.”
“Excuse me,” I gasped. It had taken me three tries and a boost from a helpful escort to get myself into the saddle. “What did we just do?”
“We committed robbery,” Sleepy told me. “We went in there pretending we were going to appeal to the File of Nine yet one more time. We got them all twisted out of shape by naming some of their names, so they had nothing else on their minds while we stole the books containing the information we need to get home safely.”
“They still don’t know,” Tobo said. “They’re still looking the other way. But that won’t last. The doppelgangers I left behind will fall apart before long. Those things can’t keep their minds on business.”
“Quit jawing and ride, then,” Sleepy grumbled. I swear. The woman was Annalist for fifteen years. She ought to have a better appreciation of the Annalist’s needs.
The mist surrounded us and seemed to move with us, unnaturally dense. Tobo’s work, probably. Shapes moved out there but did not come too close. Until I looked back.
Khang Phi had vanished already. It might be a thousand miles away or might never have existed at all. Instead I saw things I would rather not, including several of the Black Hounds, big as ponies, with high, massive shoulders like those of hyenas. For an instant, as they began to lose color and focus, an even larger beast with a head like a leopard’s, but green, loomed out of the mist between them. Cat Sith. It, too, wobbled away from reality, like an exaggerated case of heat shimmer fading. The gleam of its exposed teeth was the last to go.
With Tobo’s help we evaporated into the landscape ourselves.
Narayan Singh released his grip on his rumel, the consecrated killing scarf of a Strangler. His hands had become two aching, arthritic claws. Tears filled his eyes. He was glad the darkness hid them from the girl. “I never took an animal before,” he whispered, drawing away from the cooling carcass of the dog.
The Daughter of Night did not respond. She had to concentrate hard to use her crude talents to misdirect the bats and owls searching for them. The hunt had been on for weeks. Scores of converts had been taken. The rest had scattered in time-honored fashion. They would come together again after the hunters lost interest. And the hunters did lose interest in them before long. But this time the Witch of Taglios seemed determined to collar the Daughter of Night and the living saint of the Deceivers.
The girl relaxed, sighed. “I think they’ve moved off to the south.” Her whisper contained no note of triumph.
“This should be the last dog.” Narayan felt no sense of accomplishment, either. He reached out, touched the girl lightly. She didn’t shake him off. “They’ve never used dogs before.” He was tired. Tired of running, tired of pain.
“What’s happened, Narayan? What’s changed? Why won’t my mother answer me? I did everything right. But I still can’t feel her out there.”
Maybe she was not there anymore, the heretical side of Narayan thought. “Maybe she can’t. She has enemies among the gods as well as among men. One of those may be...”
The girl’s hand covered his mouth. He held his breath. Some owls had hearing acute enough to catch his wheezing—should they catch the girl off guard.
The hand withdrew. “It’s turned away. How do we reach her, Narayan?”
“I wish I knew, child. I wish I knew. I’m worn out. I need someone to tell me what to do. When you were little I thought you’d be queen of the world by now. That we would’ve passed through the Year of the Skulls and Kina’s triumph and I would be enjoying the rewards of my persistent faith.”
“Don’t you start, too.”
“Wavering. Doubting. I need you to be my rock, Narayan. Always, when everything else turns to filth in my hands, there’s been the granite of Papa Narayan.” For once she seemed not to be manipulating him. They huddled, prisoners of despair. The night, once Kina’s own, now belonged to the Protector and her minions. Yet they were compelled to travel under cloak of darkness. By day they were too easily recognized, she with her pale, pale skin and he with his physical impairments. The reward for their capture was great and the country folk were always poor.
Their flight had led them southward, toward the uninhabited wastelands clinging to the northern foothills of the Dandha Presh. Peopled lands were far too dangerous right now. Every hand was against them there. Yet there was no promise the wastelands would be any friendlier. Out there it might be easier for the hunters to track them.
Narayan mused, “Perhaps we should go into exile until the Protector forgets us.” She would. Her passions were furiously intense but never lasted.
The girl did not reply. She stared at the stars, possibly looking for a sign. Narayan’s proposition was impossible and they both knew it. They had been touched by the Goddess. They must do her work. They must fulfill their destinies, however unhappy the road. They must bring on the Year of the Skulls, however much suffering they must endure themselves. Paradise lay beyond the pale of affliction.
“Narayan. Look. The sky in the south.”
The old Deceiver raised his eyes. He saw what she meant immediately. One small patch of sky, due south, very low, rippled and shimmered. When that stopped for half a minute an alien constellation shone through.
“The Noose,” Singh whispered. “It isn’t possible.”
“The constellation is called the Noose. We shouldn’t be able to see it.” Not from this world. Narayan knew of it only because he had been a prisoner of the Black Company at a time when the constellation had been the subject of intense discussion. It had some connection with the glittering plain. Beneath which Kina lay imprisoned. “Maybe that’s our sign.” He was ready to grasp any straw. He dragged his weary frame upright, tucked his crutch under his arm. “South it is, then. Where we can travel by day because there’ll be no one to spot us.”
The girl said, “I don’t want to travel anymore, Narayan.” But she got up, too. Travel was what they did, day after month after year, because only by remaining in motion could they evade the evils that would prevent them from fulfilling their holy destinies.
An owl called from somewhere far away. Narayan ignored it. He was, for the thousandth time, reflecting on the change of fortune that had befallen them so swiftly, after life had gone so well for several years. His whole life had been that way, one wild swing after another. If he could cling to the tatters of his faith, if he could persevere, soon enough fortune would smile on him again. He was the living saint. His tests and trials had to be measured accordingly.
But he was so tired. And he hurt so much.
He tried not to wonder why there was no sense whatsoever of Kina’s presence in the world anymore. He tried to concentrate his whole will upon covering the next painful hundred yards. With that victory in hand he could concentrate on conquering the hundred yards that followed.
The Land of Unknown Shadows:
The Abode of Ravens
It took Tobo ten days to teach himself everything he needed to become a master shadowgate tinkerer. Those ten days seemed much longer for some of us because the File of Nine, defying the express wishes of the Elders of Khang Phi and the lords of the Court of All Seasons, issued a bull declaring the Black Company to be the enemy of the Children of the Dead. It encouraged all warlords to gather their forces and march against us.
That trouble was slow developing. The warlords who were our neighbors knew too much about us to try anything. Those who were farther away were willing to wait until someone else moved first. Most never bothered to call in their troops. And, characteristic of Hsien’s politics, the stream of volunteers, of money and materials helping us become an ever greater threat to the Children of the Dead, never slackened.
Tobo finished work on the Hsien-end shadowgate fourteen days after our return from Khang Phi. Despite the war clouds, Sleepy was in no hurry. Sahra assured her that it would be months before anyone got started our way—if they ever did at all. She claimed the warlords could not possibly agree that quickly and move that fast. No need to hurry. Haste causes mistakes. Mistakes come back to haunt you every time.
“You do a good job, you’re guaranteed gonna have to pay for it,” I told Suvrin. The young Shadowlander had just been informed of his latest honor: He was going to cross the glittering plain to scout and to repair our home shadowgate. Right after Tobo trained him. Tobo would not go himself because he did not want to be separated from his pets. Filled with low cunning, I asked, “How are your writing skills?”
He stared at me for several seconds, eyes big and brown and round in a big round, brown face. “No. I don’t think so. I like it in the Company. But I don’t plan to spend my life here. This is a learning experience. This is training. But I won’t become a lord of mercenaries.”
He surprised me, in several ways. I never heard anyone describe their Company time quite that way, though many do join up fully intending to desert just as soon as they are safely away from the trouble that had them on the run. Nor had I noticed, ever, anyone grasp so quickly what it could mean, in the long run, to be approached about becoming the apprentice Annalist.
A stint as Annalist could be a step toward becoming Captain someday.
I was teasing, mostly, but Sleepy did think a lot of Suvrin. The suggestion might not be a joke to her.
“Have fun on the other side. And be careful. You can’t be careful enough where Soulcatcher is involved.” I went on and on. His patient blank expression and glazed eyes told me he had heard it all before. I stopped. “And you’ll hear it all a hundred times more before you go. The Old Woman’ll probably write it all down in a scroll you’ll have to take along and read before breakfast every morning.”
Suvrin put on a feeble, insincere smile. “The Old Woman?”
“Thought I’d try it out. I have a feeling it isn’t going to work.”
“I think you can count on that.”
I didn’t expect to cross paths with Suvrin again this side of the plain. I was wrong. Only minutes after we parted it occurred to me that it might be useful if I sat in on the shadowgate training.
It occurred to me that I ought to ask the Captain’s permission. I was able to resist the temptation.
Lady decided it might be good if she extended her own education, too.
The Land of Unknown Shadows:
Campfires burned on the far slopes, opposite Outpost. Those pesky rock apes had emigrated. The flocks of crows were expanding. Choosers of the slain, I heard them called somewhere. The File of Nine had pulled a half-ass army together far faster than our bemused foreign minister had believed possible.
“At last,” I said to Murgen, as he and I shared a newly discovered jar of skullbuster. “To One-Eye.” The stuff just kept turning up. We were doing our best to make sure it did not fall into the hands of the soldiers. In their hands strong drink was likely to cause indiscipline. “Your old lady talked like it’d be next year before they tried anything. If they ever got anything going at all.”
The advent of unfriendly forces had been no surprise, of course. Not with Tobo handling intelligence.
“To One-Eye. She has been known to err, Captain.” He was starting to slur already. The boy could not hold his liquor. “Upon rare occasions.”
Murgen hoisted his cup in a salute. “To One-Eye.” Then he shook his head. “I do love that woman, Captain.”
“Uhm.” Oh-oh. I hoped we did not get maudlin here. But I understood his problem. She got old. We spent fifteen years in stasis, not aging a minute. A little payoff from the gods for doing us so dirty the rest of the time, maybe. But Sahra, who meant more to Murgen than life itself, who was the mother of his son, had not been one of the Captured.
Which had been lucky for us. Because she had dedicated herself to freeing Murgen. And eventually she succeeded. And freed me and my wife and most of the Captured as well. But Sahra had grown and had changed and had aged more than those fifteen years. And their son had grown up. And even now, four years after our resurrection, Murgen still had not adjusted completely.
“You can get by,” I told him. “Bless One-Eye. Put it all out of your mind. Exist in the now. Don’t worry about the then. That’s what I do.” In terms of experience my wife had been ancient centuries before I was born. “You did get to be the ghost that rode around with her and shared her life, even if you couldn’t touch her.” I live with ten thousand ghosts from my wife’s past, few of whom ever got discussed. She just did not want to talk about her olden days.
Murgen grunted, mumbled something about One-Eye. He was having trouble understanding me even though I was articulating with especial precision. He asked, “You never were much of a drinker, were you, Captain?”
“No. But I’ve always been a good soldier. I’ve always done what’s got to be done.”
We were outside, of course, watching shooting stars and the constellations of fires that marked the enemy encampment. There seemed to be an awful lot of those fires. More than the reported numbers deserved. Some genius of a warlord was playing games.
“They’re not going to come,” Murgen said. “They’re just going to sit there. It’s all for the benefit of the Nine. It’s showmanship.”
I blessed One-Eye and took another drink, wondered if Murgen was repeating his wife’s assumption or his son’s. I cocked my head in favor of my left eye. My night vision is questionable even when I am sober.
Murgen said, “I don’t think you can imagine the level of fear over there right now. The boy does something to terrorize them every night. He hasn’t hurt a louse on one of their heads yet but they’re not stupid. They get the message.”
You got the Black Hounds strolling through your camp, eating out of your cookpots, or maybe pissing in them, and you have dozens of lesser night things pulling up tent pegs and starting fires and stealing your boots and treasures, you have troubles that will effect morale for sure. The soldiers will not believe the stories you tell to soothe them, however clever you think you are.
“The thing is, if the leadership decides there’ll be war, they’ll come.” I knew. I have been with the Company forever. I have seen men fight under incredibly bad conditions. And, admittedly, I have seen men lose heart when conditions seemed ideal. “To One-Eye. He was a big part of the glue that held us together.”
“One-Eye. You know the Fourth Battalion’s going up tonight?”
“To the plain. They’re probably moving out right now.”
“Suvrin can’t possibly have the shadowgate ready to go yet.”
Murgen shrugged. “I’m just saying what I heard. Sahra telling Tobo. She got it from Sleepy.”
Once again the Annalist had not been included in the planning and decision-making. The Annalist was irked. In a former life he had gained a lot of experience planning campaigns and managing large groups of fractious people. The Annalist can contribute still.
In a moment of clarity I understood why I was being left out. Because of the thing that killed One-Eye. Its punishment was unimportant to Sleepy. She did not want to waste time and resources on it. Particularly the time needed to argue with me and those who felt the way I do.
I mused. “Maybe I shouldn’t try to avenge One-Eye.”
Murgen didn’t mind an unexplained shift in topic. He was listening more closely to his own soul, anyway. He did say, “What’re you talking about? It’s got to be done.”
So he agreed with me. It occurred to me that he had known One-Eye longer than anyone else but me. I still thought of him as the new kid sometimes because he was almost the last man to join us while we were still in service to the Lady, in that other world so far away and so long ago that there were moments when I almost waxed nostalgic for those bad old days.
“Here’s one more to One-Eye. And I want to know when we’re going to start racking up some good old days.”
“They’re in there, Captain. Here and there. They just don’t stick out.”
I remembered one or two. But that only got me started thinking about what might have been. About Booboo. And when I mix strong spirits with thoughts of my daughter the weather turns maudlin every time. And we see more and more of that weather as I get older.
“You got any idea what Sleepy’s strategy is?” I asked. She would have one. Scheming and planning is supposedly her long suit. Long enough for her to have outwitted the Radisha and my sister-in-law.
“Not a clue. I knew more about what was going on when I was a ghost.”
“You don’t go out of body anymore?”
“I’m cured. At least in this world.”
Not good, I feared. His loose attachment to his flesh had been the Company’s most potent weapon for years. What would we do if we could no longer see what was happening in places we were not at?
You do get spoiled fast.
Something chittered in the darkness. For a moment I thought it was mocking me. But then a huge fireball rolled up into the night across the valley. The unseen thing’s amusement was at the expense of the soldiers over there.
“This jar’s gone empty,” I grumbled, leaning back and shaking a last drop into the back of my mouth. “I’m going to go see if I can’t make another one turn up where we found this one.”
Doj nodded slightly as Lady and I rode past his place. When I glanced back a minute later he was in the street with several Nyueng Bao henchmen. He was wearing his sword, Ash Wand. Up ahead, Thai Dei, Murgen’s brother-in-law and bodyguard, strolled along the street. He was armed, too. If he was moving, Murgen would be, too.
I kept a wary watch behind. This had to be done before Sleepy caught on. Before she could issue orders forbidding it. I would not defy direct orders.
She and Sahra were down in the valley. Tran Huu Nhang had come out under a flag of truce. I had a feeling he would announce that the File of Nine had decided to accept reality. They would never admit it but their army had been defeated without stepping onto the field of battle. It was evaporating. The private soldiers were unwilling to endure the persistent attentions of the Unknown Shadows.
It was all pretty amusing—unless you were one of the Nine determined to make a reputation for the File, or you were a crow with hopes of getting fat. Amusing but handy. I was tired of waiting for a chance to slip away. My need to settle with the Bowalk monster had grown pretty powerful, though I hid it well. I have a number of obsessions that I do not let show.
Officially, the Eleventh Battalion was rotating up to guard the shadowgate. In reality, the Eleventh would be started through to the fortress at the heart of the plain, after nightfall. My gang would be up there much earlier, swiftly moving beyond any hope of Sleepy turning us around. Tobo would cover our backtrail.
I made a sign I hoped would be seen and passed along. We needed to move faster. Sleepy is a resourceful little witch. If there was any way to beat me out of this she might have it figured out already.
It did seem like she was out there by herself on the Bowalk question. One-Eye had a lot more friends dead than he had had while he was alive.
Tobo was at the shadowgate. But he was supposed to be keeping an eye on his mother and the Captain. Before I could say anything, though, he told me, “They’re safe. The meet is a face-saving scheme by the Nine. They’ve realized what they did was stupid. There’ll be a lot of ceremony but no admission of anything, like even that they’ve got an army over there that wanted to do us evil, and before they’re done they’ll give Mom a bull that grants the Company permission to find and use the shadowgate secrets.” He grinned, a kid excited. “I don’t think they’ve been getting enough sleep.”
“And why are you here?”
“I have family going through. Don’t I?”
Of course he did. I was on edge. “Let’s keep moving, people.” With Nyueng Bao, old Company hands, my wife and whatnot, I would have just over forty people joining my hunt. For a while. If it dragged on I might not be able to hold them together.
Tobo told me, “Make camp at the first circle. Even if it seems like you can cover a lot more ground before it gets dark.” He told Lady, “It’s important. Keep him in check. The first circle. So I can catch up when I get away.”
Willow Swan called, “Hey, Croaker. If you stand right here and look just right out of the side of your eye, you can see the Nef. In broad daylight.”
Swan was on the other side of the Hsien shadowgate. His voice had a dampened, distant quality.
I gave him my best scowl. “Don’t forget plain discipline.” Shivetya might be our ally and the soul of the plain but there were perils up there even he could not master. The Unforgiven Dead were as hungry for life as ever. Only the roads and circles were safe. Extreme care had to be taken to avoid piercing the protective boundaries. Their master spells would repair them if you did. But you would not be alive to enjoy the result. All that would be left of you was a desiccated husk that had taken a while dying, screaming all the way.
Lately there seemed to be less shadow activity than in the past. Possibly Shivetya had found a way to control them. Maybe even to destroy them. They were a later accretion. He had no use for them. He would love to be rid of them.
Which would be as wonderful for those sad but deadly monsters as it would be for us. They would achieve the release of death at least. A release Shivetya understood. It was a release he yearned for himself.
I started barking at people. “Let’s get that equipment out and moving! Where are those mules? I thought I sent them up here last week.” When a lot of people agree with you, you can move a lot of material without drawing much attention. I started work on this as soon as I was sure Sleepy did not intend to pursue it herself.
“Calm down,” Tobo told me. And I did. Stunned. Because a kid was saying it to a veteran. And was right. “Come here. Lady, you too.” He stepped away from the road, to a rudely made wooden box balanced precariously atop a jagged boulder.
“This same rock is over on the home side,” I said. “Your father had a bunker right over there where that bush is. What have you got?”
The box contained what looked like four black glass cylinders a foot long, two inches in diameter, equipped with a metal handle on one end.
“These are keys. Like the Lance of Passion was. The kind you need to get on and off the plain. I made new ones. It’s not hard if you have the specifications. Blade has one key. Suvrin has two. One is in place in this gate here. We’ll take it away when we leave. Two more are with a couple of the battalion commanders who went up already. You’re going to take two with you. Just in case.”
He handed me one cylinder and gave the other to Lady. Mine seemed heavier than an object its size ought to be. The handle was silver. I asked, “You just drop it into the hole in the plain, right?”
“Exactly. Remember your repair lessons?” He faced Lady when he asked that. I did sit in on the classes but my wife had gotten a lot better understanding of the process. It would have to be a major emergency before we counted on me doing anything even vaguely related to sorcery.
A stream of mules and men passed through the shadowgate. Each got checked by a sergeant who must have spent his formative years at Sleepy’s headquarters. He wanted to make note of every man, every animal, every fireball thrower and other major item of equipment or weaponry. The Nyueng Bao, not really belonging to the Company, were rude to him. I went over and was rude myself. “You’re gumming up the works, Sergeant. Go away. Or I’ll ask Tobo to sic one of the Black Hounds on you.”
The pack was not far off. Nobody could see them, of course, but they made plenty of racket when they quarreled among themselves. And that never stopped.
My threat had the desired effect. The keeper of inventories departed so fast there was almost a whoosh. He would file an official complaint. But that would end up far down the list of my delinquencies.
Tobo overtook me. Most of my gang were through now. The kid bowed to his father, formally polite. He and Murgen had a mutual problem. Neither knew quite how to bridge the gap left by Murgen having been buried during most of the years Tobo was growing up.
The boy told me, in a voice his father was intended to hear, “You’d better push it now. Mom just got word of what you’re doing. She’ll keep her mouth shut for Gota’s sake. For now. But when she hears that Dad is in on it she’s going to boil over and head straight for the Captain.”
I gave Murgen an ugly look. Didn’t tell the old lady you were going out with the guys, eh? How did Tobo know what his mother had just found out? The kid snapped his fingers, made a series of hand gestures, said something obscure, apparently to empty air.
A pair of shadows raced across the slope, slanting down from the southwest. They headed straight toward us. I saw nothing to cast them. Then, suddenly, I had a face full of flapping wings, weights on my shoulders and what felt like dragon’s talons trying to rip the meat off my collarbones. Ravens.
“They only look like crows,” Tobo said. “Don’t ever forget that they’re not.” I shuddered. I have lived with this stuff all around me, decade after decade, but being exposed to it has not made it any less creepy.
Tobo told me. “At my request they’ve agreed to assume this shape. They’ll be your eyes and ears wherever you have to operate without me. They won’t have the strategic range you were used to with Dad but they can cover a few hundred miles, fast, and they’ll give you a strong tactical advantage. Besides scouting they can carry messages. Be sure to frame those carefully, clearly, without ambiguity, and try to keep them short. Give them an absolutely crystal clear address. Name names and make sure they know who the names belong to.”
I turned my head right and left, caught glimpses from the sides of my eyes. It was disconcerting, having those cruel beaks so close. The eyes are the first things the Choosers of the Slain go for on the battlefield.
One bird was black, the other white. They were bigger than the local breed of raven. And the white one had not gotten the shape quite right. It looked like one of its parents had been a startled pigeon instead of a crow.
“If it turns out that I can’t catch up and you need to get in touch, they can find me easily.”
I am sure I looked grim.
Grinning, Tobo told me, “And I thought they’d go great with your costume. Mom told me you always had ravens on your shoulders when you did Widowmaker, years ago.”
I sighed. “Those were real crows. And they belonged to Soulcatcher. The two of us had a sort of understanding in those days. Enemy of my enemy kind of thing.”
“You did bring the Widowmaker armor with you, didn’t you? And One-Eye’s spear? You know you won’t be able to come back for anything you leave behind.”
“Yes, yes. I have it.” This Widowmaker costume armor was not the same outfit that I had worn decades ago. That had gotten lost during Sleepy and Sahra’s Kiaulune wars. Soulcatcher probably had it in her trophy chamber. This armor, though mainly for show, came from Hsien’s finest armories and had a distinct native flavor. Its black, chitinous lacquer surface boasted inlays of gold and silver symbols that Hsien associated with sorcery and evil and darkness. Some reproduced arcane characters of power once associated with the Shadowmasters. Others went back to an age when Hsien’s now-extinct Kina cult was sending out Deceiver companies on crusade. All those symbols were scary, at least in the world where first they had been imagined.
Lady’s reconstituted Lifetaker armor was uglier than mine. The stuff on its exterior was less clearly defined and much more creepy because she had insisted on being involved in its design and creation. The inside of her head is filled with spiders.
She did not get any pretend-to-be Choosers of the Slain. She got several ornate little teak boxes and a thin stack of sheets of the strange rice paper preferred by the monks of Khang Phi.
“You have to go. I’ll see that they don’t send a messenger to order you back.”
I grunted. Except for Uncle Doj, who paused to murmur with Tobo, I was the last of my gang through the Hsien shadowgate. Lady squeezed my hand when I joined her on the risky side. She said, “We’re off, darling. Again.” She seemed excited.
“Again.” I could not recall ever being excited by moving out.
Murgen asked, “You want to show the standard now?”
“Not until we’re on the plain itself. We’re renegades here. Let’s don’t make Sleepy look small.” I had an idea, then. If I could come up with some material... we could run up the old Company standard. From before we adopted Soulcatcher’s firebreathing skull.
“Good,” Doj told me, stepping through the gate. “A bit of wisdom. That’s really good.”
I began the climb to the plain somewhat numbed by the realization that I was the only living member of the company who recalled our original banner. It had been no more cheerful than today’s was but it had been a lot busier. A field of scarlet with nine hanged men in black and six yellow daggers in the upper left and lower right quadrants, respectively, while the upper right quandrant featured a shattered skull and the lower left boasted a bird astride a severed head. It might have been a raven. Or an eagle.
There was nothing in the Annals to suggest when or why that banner had been adopted.
“Different stars tonight,” Willow Swan said, lying back, staring at the sky.
“Different everything,” Murgen replied. “Find me Little Boy or the Dragon’s Eye.”
There was no moon. There is always a moon up in the Land of Unknown Shadows.
The sky on the plain... is changeable. It may not boast the same constellation two nights running.
The weather is usually benign. Cold, of course. But seldom rainy, or worse. In my experience. But I was not concerned about rain or snow. Shadow weather worried me.
The sixteen shadowgates are equally spaced around the perimeter of the plain. From each a road of stone of a different color from the plain runs inward to the nameless fortress like a spoke in a wagon wheel. I had seen only two of the roads. One was darker than the surrounding plain, the other slightly lighter. At six-mile intervals along the spokes there were large circles of appropriately shaded material. Those got used as campgrounds though that might not have been their original function. The plain has changed with the ages. Man cannot leave anything alone. The roads were once just mystical routes between worlds. Now they are the only safety out there when the sun sets. When darkness falls the killer shadows leave their hiding places. As we gagged down our rough supper the little light glowing from charcoal fires revealed dozens of black stains oozing over the invisible dome protecting the circle.
“The Slugs of Doom,” Murgen said through a mouthful of bread, waving at a nearby shadow. “Much better than the Host of the Unforgiven Dead.”
“The man’s suddenly developing a sense of humor,” Cletus said. “This worries me.”
His brother Loftus said, “Be afraid, people. Very afraid. The End Days are upon us.”
“You saying it’s bad jokes going to bring on the Year of the Skulls?”
I observed, “If that was the case we’d’ve been dead twenty years ago and the only thing you’d see up there is Kina’s ugly face.”
“Speaking of ugly.” Lady pointed.
We had staked our few square feet of turf at the edge of the circle, where the road to the heart of the plain departed it. I had placed the key given to me by Tobo in the socket in the stone where circle and road came together. Every circle had the sockets. The key sealed the road off. It would keep shadows who got past the protective barriers anywhere else from being able to get us.
“The Nef,” Murgen said.
The three creatures at the barrier were plain for everyone to see. They were bipedal but their heads were dissimilar masses of ugliness other Annalists have said they hoped were masks. I could see why — though, seeing them, I got a powerful sense of déjà vu. Maybe I ran into them in a dream. I must have had a few while I was buried. I said, “You know these guys, Murgen. See if you can talk to them.”
“Yeah. And after I do that I’ll fly off to the sun.” No one had yet managed to communicate with the Nef, though it was obvious the creatures desperately wanted to talk. We were so alien to each other that communication was impossible.
“We must be getting a better grasp. We’re seeing them when we’re awake. We are awake, aren’t we?” Historically, the Nef appeared only in dreams. Only in the past year did guards at the shadowgate report catching glimpses the way troops elsewhere made sightings of Tobo’s pets.
Murgen ambled over warily. I observed. But I also started keeping an eye on my ravens. Until nightfall they had been almost somnolent, entirely indifferent to the world. The appearance of shadows on the barrier turned them restless, even bellicose. They hissed and coughed and produced a whole range of uncorvine noises. Some form of communication was going on because the shadows responded—though, clearly, not the way the ravens wanted.
The Unknown Shadows of Hsien did share a common ancestry with the Host of the Unforgiven Dead.
Murgen marveled, “I think I’m actually getting what they’re trying to tell me.”
“What’s that?” My wife, I noticed, was watching the Nef intently. Could they be making sense to her, too? But she had no previous experience with the dreamwalkers. Unless while she was a sort of dreamwalker herself, while we were buried.
No, it had to be those three. They had studied us long enough to figure out how to get through. Maybe.
Murgen said, “They want us not to keep heading toward the center of the plain. They’re saying we should take the other road.”
“Based on what’s in the Annals, I’d say they’ve been trying to get us to do something besides what we want from the first time anybody dreamed them. They’re just never able to make themselves clear.”
“That would’ve been me,” Murgen said. “And you’re right. What I’ve never figured out, though, is whether they’re trying to save us trouble or are pushing their own agenda. It seems to work out both ways.”
The tiniest hiss escaped my black raven. A warning. I turned. Uncle Doj had appeared behind Murgen, two steps back, fully armed, staring at the Nef. After watching them for a minute he drifted around the circle to the right, not quite a quarter of the way. Then he shuffled back and forth, squatted, rose up on his toes.
Then Lady went over there. She checked the view from multiple angles herself. “There is a ghost of a road, Croaker.” She came back, dug out the key Tobo had given her. I walked back with her. A socket for the key had appeared in the stone surface when no one was watching. It was not there earlier. I had done a one-hundred percent walkaround of the perimeter before we settled down.
Doj said, “The boy told me not to let you waste time trying to make time. Perhaps this is why.”
“Murgen. You know about shortcuts and side roads on the plain?”
“They’re supposed to exist. Sleepy saw them.”
Vaguely, now, I recalled something from my own first passage across the plain.
Lady wanted to plug in her key. I held her back. I said, “All right. If you feel comfortable. Doj? What do you think? Is it safe?” He was as near a real wizard as we had here.
“It doesn’t feel wrong.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But good enough.
Lady lowered the key into place. In moments the ghost road became more substantial, began to give the impression of a golden glow that was not quite there when you tried to see it. My shoulder ornaments were not pleased. They hissed and spat and retreated to the far side of the circle, where they got into a squabble with something large and dark oozing across the surface of our protection.
Murgen said, “I think they want to enter the circle, Captain. I think they want to cut across.”
“Yeah?” The auxiliary road was now more plainly seen than the main way. I mused, “We could hike straight across to the first circle right behind the Khatovar shadowgate.” I went and started getting my gear together.
Doj told me, “Not before morning. Tobo told you that we have to stay here overnight.”
I glanced around. Obviously, the only way I would get anybody moving again tonight would be by making myself extremely unpopular.
Khatovar had been there for ages. It would be there after the sun came up. My interest in Lisa Daele Bowalk went back farther than my interest in that place, to a city called Juniper, before she made the acquaintance of a Taken known as Shapeshifter. Justice delayed a few hours more would not set the universe wobbling.
I sighed, dropped my stuff. I shrugged. “After breakfast, then.”
“Let them go through,” Lady said.
“The Nef? You kidding?”
“Doj and I can handle them.”
Interesting, her confidence. But it was misplaced. She knew nothing about the Nef. Unless she had met them in her dreams.
I moved people away from potential trouble, creating a clear path. “Everyone ready? Pull the key, then, Murgen.” It would be intriguing to see if the plain would let him.
Doj swung Ash Wand around in front of him, exposed eight inches of blade.
The key came out of its seat. Murgen jumped back. The Nef leapt into the circle. And streaked straight across, to the side road. They hit it and never looked back.
“That’s definitely weird,” Willow Swan said. The dream-walkers were in a hurry but nobody dwindles that fast. Nor, normally, do they grow transparent as they go. “Slid right back into dreamland.”
I wondered, “You suppose I would’ve slid into dreamland if I’d tried that road?” The road itself began to fade.
Nobody disagreed. Doj mused, “Tobo did say to stay put.”
Middle of the night. Something wakened me. Felt like a tiny earthquake. The stars above were dancing. After another jiggle they settled down. And were no longer the stars that had been up there when I laid down. This was a different sky altogether.
“That way!” Doj insisted. It was morning, we were up and Doj insisted on heading back the way we had come.
“The fortress is that way.”
“We don’t want to go to the fortress,” Lady reminded me. “We want to go to Khatovar.”
“Which isn’t back that way... is it?” Tobo had not caught up. I was not thrilled about that.
Willow Swan suggested, “You can go look, Croaker. It wouldn’t take that long.”
I was tired of arguing, particularly in front of a crowd. I did not want my right to lead to become more questionable than it was already. We all possessed guilty hearts. Me more than any because I bought the Company mystique more than any. “I’ll take Swan’s advice.” I pointed here, there, choosing companions. “You guys get to go with me. Mount up. Let’s go.”
So we were off to the mule races.
“I don’t believe it.” I did not. Could not. My eyes had to be liars.
Lying at the rim of the glittering plain I stared down at another landscape with topography resembling that at Kiaulune and at the Abode of Ravens. But here there was no bustling, recovering Kiaulune. There was no fallen castle Overlook, formerly equipped with towers from which Longshadow could look down onto the glittering plain and see what was coming to get him. Nor was there a whitewashed army town with neat ranks of fields on the slopes below it. This country was feral. This country was much more damp than the other two. Wild brush and scraggly trees advanced to within yards of the crippled shadowgate. The works around that were the only recognizable human handiwork visible, and they were in ruins.
“Stay low,” Doj advised when I started to rise, which would silhouette me above the skyline. I knew better than that. People who do know better generally get skragged that one time they forget or let something slide. Which is why we pound it in and pound it in and pound it in. “That jungle doesn’t mean that there aren’t eyes watching.”
“You’re right. I almost did a stupid. Anybody want to guess how old that scrub down there is? I’d say between fifteen and twenty with a bet that it’s a lot closer to twenty.”
Murgen wondered, “What difference does it make?”
“The forvalaka broke through this shadowgate about nineteen years ago. She got away. Soulcatcher was too busy burying our asses to chase her, shadows did get after her...”
“Oh. Yeah. She didn’t go out alone when she went.”
“That’s my guess. Shadows got out behind her and wiped out everything we can see from here.”
Murgen grunted. Lady nodded, as did Doj. They saw it the same.
Khatovar. My destination for an age. My obsession. Destroyed because we had not had the good sense to cut a young woman’s throat in a place now long ago and far away.
The quality of mercy has left me a great, sour role in the theater of my own despair.
Though it is true that it had not seemed important at the time, and we were real busy trying to get out of there with our asses still attached.
The Great General
Mogaba leaned back, smiling. “I can’t help wishing Narayan Singh continued luck.” Relaxed, content, for the first time in years, he found life good. The Protector was in the provinces indulging her passion for religious persecution. Therefore, she was not around the Palace making life miserable for those who actually hauled on the reins, riding the tiger whilst trying to keep the mundane work of government simmering.
His mention of the living saint made Aridatha Singh flinch. It was subtle but the reaction was there. And it was unique. Other Singhs did not react to the name, other than with an obligatory curse, perhaps. This demanded further examination.
Mogaba asked, “Any trouble out there?”
Aridatha said, “It’s quiet. You have the Protector out of town, making no ridiculous demands, things settle down. People get too busy making a living to act up.”
Ghopal was less upbeat. The Greys were out in the streets and alleys every day. “Graffiti keeps turning up more and more. ‘Water Sleeps’ most often.”
“And?” Murgen asked. His voice was soft but intense, his eyes narrow.
“The other traditional taunts are all there. ‘All Their Days Are Numbered.’ ‘Rajadharma .’”
“And?” Mogaba seemed to have shifted characters the way Soulcatcher did. Perhaps he was aping her style.
“That one, too. ‘My Brother Unforgiven.’”
That harsh indictment again. That accusation which always disturbed the incomplete slumber of the part of him guilty about betraying the Black Company to advance his own ambitions. No good had come of it. His life had become enslaved by it. His punishment was to move from one villain to another, always serving wickedness, like a loose woman passing from man to man down a long decline.
Aridatha Singh, eager to move away from talk about Narayan Singh and the Deceivers, interjected, “One of my officers reported a new one yesterday. ‘Thi Kim is coming.’”
“Thi Kim? What is that? Or who?”
Ghopal observed, “It sounds Nyueng Bao.”
“We don’t see much of those people these days.”
“Since somebody snatched the Radisha right out of the Palace...” Ghopal stopped. Mogaba had begun to darken again, though that failure belonged to the Greys, not to the army. He had been in the territories at the time.
“So. All the old slogans. But the Company all fled through the shadowgate. And perished on the other side because they never came back.”
Ghopal knew little about the world outside his own narrow, filthy streets. “Maybe some of them did survive and we just don’t know about it.”
“No. They didn’t. We would’ve heard. The Protector’s had people down there harvesting shadows since they left.” People who had been lured into her service by cruelly false promises to teach them her ways and make them captains in her great, unrevealed enterprise.
None of those collaborators survived long. Shadows were clever and persistent. Quite a few found ways to escape from novices long enough to destroy their tormenters and be destroyed themselves.
Soulcatcher made sure conditions for disaster remained ripe.
Mogaba closed his eyes, leaned back again, steepled his dark fingers. “I’ve enjoyed not having the Protector around.” Getting those words out casually was difficult. His throat was tight. His chest felt like a huge weight was pressing in on it. He was afraid. Soulcatcher terrified him. And for that he hated her. And for that he loathed himself. He was Mogaba, the Great General, the purest, smartest, strongest of the Nar warriors produced by Gea-Xle. For him fear was supposed to be a tool by which he managed the weak. He was not supposed to know it personally.
Silently, within, Mogaba repeated his warrior’s mantras, knowing habits ingrained since birth would hold the fear at bay.
Ghopal Singh was a functionary. Very good at managing the Greys but not a natural conspirator. That was one attribute that had recommended him to the Protector. He did not apprehend the message lurking on the edges of the Great General’s statement. Aridatha Singh, in some ways, was as naive as he was handsome. But he did understand that Mogaba was sneaking up on something that could be a great watershed in all their lives.
Mogaba had championed Aridatha’s elevation because of his naivete concerning the complex motives of others and because of his enthusiastic idealism. Rajadharma was a lever that Mogaba was sure would move Aridatha Singh.
Aridatha peered around nervously. He had heard the old saying that in the Palace the very walls have ears.
Mogaba leaned forward, lit a cheap tallow candle from a lamp and took the fire to a stoneware bowl filled with a dark liquid. Ghopal held his tongue even though the animal product offended him religiously.
The bowl’s contents proved to be flammable, though they produced more unpleasant black smoke than they did flame or light. The smoke spread out across the ceiling, then crept down the walls and flowed out the doors. Its progress was marked by squeaks and chitterings and an occasional complaint from an unseen crow.
Mogaba said, “We may have to get down on the floor for a few minutes, till the smoke thins Out.”
Aridatha whispered, “Are you really proposing what I think you’re proposing?”
Mogaba murmured, “You may not have the same reasons I do but I think we’d all be better off if the Protector no longer held her position. Particularly the Taglian people. What do you think?”
Mogaba had expected Aridatha to agree easily. The soldier believed in his obligation to the people he served. And he did nod.
Ghopal Singh was his main worry. Ghopal had no obvious reason to want change. The Greys were all members of the Shadar religion, traditionally with little influence in government. Their alliance with the Protector had given them power out of proportion to their numbers. They would be reluctant to lose that power.
Ghopal glanced around nervously, completely failing to note Mogaba’s intense examination. He blurted, though in a whisper, “She has to go. The Greys have believed that for a long time. The Year of the Skulls couldn’t be much more terrible than what we’ve suffered from her. But we don’t know how to get rid of her. She’s too powerful. And too smart.”
Mogaba relaxed. So the Greys were not enamored of their benefactor. Interesting. Excellent.
“But we’ll never get rid of her. She always knows what everyone around her is thinking. And we’ll never be able not to think about it because we’ll be so scared. She’ll sniff it out in about ten seconds. Really, we’re walking dead men now, just for having considered it.”
“Then get your family out of town now,” Mogaba told him. It was Soulcatcher’s habit to exterminate her enemies root and branch. “I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. I think that the only way it could be managed would be to have everything in place and strike before she has a chance to look around and pick up clues. We might engineer it so that she arrives exhausted. That might give us the edge we need.”
Aridatha mused, “Whatever it is, it will have to be sudden and massive and a complete surprise.”
“She’ll begin to suspect,” Ghopal said. “There are too many people loyal to her, because without her they’ll be dead themselves. They’ll warn her.”
“Not if we don’t get carried away. If just us three know what’s happening. We’re in charge. We can give any orders we want. People won’t question us. There’s trouble on the streets and it’s getting worse. People will expect us to do something about it. Plenty of others hate the Protector. They’ll feel free to act up while she’s away. That gives us an excuse to do almost anything we want. If we mainly use people whose loyalty to the Protector is absolute, letting them do most of the work and carry the messages, there’s no reason she should suspect anything until it’s too late.”
Ghopal looked at him like he was whistling in the dark. Maybe he was. Mogaba said, “I’ve opened my mouth here. I’ve committed myself. And I have nowhere to run.” They were natives. They could vanish into the territories. There was nowhere he could hide. And a return to Gea-Xle had been out of the question for twenty-five years. The Nar back home knew all about what he had done.
Aridatha mused, “Then every day in every way we should do our jobs to the utmost on the Protector’s behalf—until we create a rattrap we can close like this.” He clapped his hands.
“We’ll only get one chance,” Mogaba said. “Five seconds after we fail we’ll all be praying for death.” He waited a moment during which he checked the smoke. Its usefulness was almost exhausted. “Are you in?”
Both Singhs nodded but neither showed an unbound eagerness. The truth was, it was a poor bet that any of them would survive this adventure.
Mogaba sat in his quarters staring out at a full moon. He wondered if it had been too easy. Were the Singhs genuinely interested in ridding Taglios of the Protector? Or had they just played along, sensing that he was the more deadly threat at the moment?
If they were not committed he would learn the truth only when Soulcatcher sank her teeth into his throat.
He was going to be an intimate acquaintance of fear for a long time to come.
Swan volunteered to slither down to the shadowgate with me. I demurred. “I think I’ll take my sweetheart. We don’t get many chances to get away together.” And she would have a steadier hand than I would when it came to working on the shadowgate. Which, even from the head of the slope, could be seen to need restoration.
After examining the shadowgate from a closer vantage, I told my beloved, “Bowalk really tore it up getting through.”
“She had shadows gnawing on her. According to what Sleepy says Shivetya showed her. Tell me you’d be gentle and not slam the door if you had those things after you.”
“I don’t even want to think about it. Are we safe? Is anything out there watching?”
“I don’t know.”
“I have a little power here on the plain. A dim one-hundredth of what used to be. But outside the shadowgates I might as well be deaf, dumb and blind. All I can do is pretend.”
“So Kina is alive, then?”
“Possibly. If I’m not just tapping Shivetya or some residual, ambient power. The plain is a place of many strange energies. They leak in from the different worlds.”
“But you believe you’re bleeding Kina again. Don’t you?”
“If I am, she’s not just sleeping, she’s in a coma.”
“I thought I saw something move.”
“That was just the breeze stirring the branches.”
“You think so? I’m not inclined to take chances.”
The sarky witch said, “You stand guard. I’ll work on the gate.”
If she did I could not tell. She was less active than I would have been.
We were through. Into Khatovar. I did not feel like I had found my way into paradise. I did not feel like I had come home. I felt the letdown I had expected almost from the moment I had become aware that my lust to find Khatovar had been imposed upon me from without. Khadi’s Gate was a wasteland.
Clete and Loftus started laying out a camp close enough to the gate that we could make a quick getaway if that became necessary. I was still at the gate itself, surveying this world where the Black Company had been born.
Definitely the disappointment I had anticipated. Maybe even worse.
Something stirred the hair on the back of my neck. I turned. I saw nothing but had a distinct feeling that something had just come through the shadowgate.
I caught movement in the edge of my vision. Something dark. A shape both large and ugly.
One of the Black Hounds.
The back of my neck went cool again. Then again.
Maybe Tobo was coming after all.
The darker of my two ravens settled onto a nearby boulder. After a shower of hisses directed nowhere in particular, it cocked a big yellow eye my way and said, “There are no occupied human dwellings within fifty miles. The ruins of a city lie under the trees below the rocky prominence to the northeast. There are signs that humans visit it occasionally.”
I gaped. That damned bird was better-spoken than most of my companions. But before I could strike up a conversation, it took to the air again.
So there were people in this world. But the closest were at least three days away.
The promontory the bird mentioned was the place where the fortress Overlook had stood in our own world. The ruins likely occupied the same site as Kiaulune.
Another chill on the neck. The Unknown Shadows continued to come through.
I went down to camp. The engineer brothers were old but efficient. It was livable right now—as long as we got no rain.
The rain would be along before long. It was clear it rained often here.
Fires were burning. Somebody had killed a wild pig. It smelled heavenly, roasting. Shelters were going up. Sentries were out. Uncle Doj had appointed himself sergeant of the guard and was making a circuit of the four guardposts.
I waited till Murgen found something to occupy him, beckoned Swan and Lady. “Let’s think about what we do now.” I looked my wife in the eye. She understood what I wanted to know. She shook her head.
There was no Khatovaran source of magical power she could parasitize.
I grumped, “I didn’t expect towers of pearl and ruby beside streets of gold, but this is ridiculous.” I checked Doj and Murgen. They showed no interest in us yet.
“Sour grapes.” Swan sneered, heading straight for the critical point. “That’s a whole world out there. Damned near empty, it looks like. How do you expect to find one insane killer monster?”
“I got to thinking about that while I was standing up there looking at all this. Amongst other things. And I think I’ve had an evil epiphany.”
Lady contributed to the Annals and tried to keep up with her successors. She shook her head, said, “There isn’t much in what she wrote.”
Swan glanced around. Nobody was close. In a soft voice he said, “She hasn’t been writing the histories since you came back, has she?”
I asked, “What’s that mean?”
“Over the years Tobo and Suvrin and some of their cronies have visited most of the shadowgates. They visited the Khatovar gate several times.”
“How do you know?”
“I sneak around. I listen when I’m not supposed to hear. I know Suvrin and Tobo came out here while you were wounded. Just the two of them. And later, while we were in Khang Phi, Suvrin went out again. Alone.”
“Then I’m right. We’ve been jobbed. How come you didn’t mention this before?”
“It had to do with Khatovar. I figured you were behind whatever was going on.”
Lady made a growling, chuckling sound that told me she had a handle on the truth. “That devious little witch. You really think so?”
Swan asked, “What am I missing?”
I told him, “I think we’re out here raiding Khatovar not because I’m so damned clever but because Sleepy wants us old farts out from under foot when she breaks out into the homeworld. I’ll bet the whole damned force is moving right now. And Sleepy won’t have a single one of us asking questions or giving advice or trying to do things our own way.”
Swan took a while to think about it. Then he took a while to look around at the gang who had elected to defy the command authority to pursue revenge on One-Eye’s killer. He said, “Either she is really an astute little bitch or we’ve been around so many sneaky people so long that we see machinations everywhere we look.”
“Tobo knew,” I said. Tobo had to be part of it. He let his father and Uncle Doj come out here... “You know, I’m so paranoid I’m going to put a guard on the gate from the other side. And I’ll fill them up with lies about how a demon in the guise of one of our people might try to sabotage the gate so we can’t get back out of Khatovar.”
Neither Lady nor Swan argued. Swan did remark. “You are paranoid. You think Sahra would let Sleepy get away with leaving Thai Dei, Murgen and Doj trapped out here?”
“I think it’s a mad universe. I think almost anything somebody can imagine happening can happen. Even the cruelest, blackest sin.”
Lady asked, “And what do you intend to do about it?”
“I’m going to kill the forvalaka.”
Swan said, “Murgen’s noticed that something’s going on. He’s headed this way.”
“I’m going to play the game. Tobo sent a bunch of his pets through after us. Let’s make sure they can’t get back out unless we let them go. We’ll use them to find Bowalk. Then we’ll kill her.”
Fortress with No Name
Sleepy reached the fortress at the heart of the plain by the expedient of refusing to be steered elsewhere. Shivetya’s helpful shortcuts were not going to divert her from examining the root of her scheme for conquest.
There was one temporal power greater than the greatest sorcery. Greed. And she owned the wellspring of a flood of what the greedy held most dear: gold. Not to mention silver and gems and pearls.
For thousands of years fugitives from many worlds had hidden their treasures in the caverns beneath Shivetya’s throne. Who knew why? Possibly Shivetya. But Shivetya would not tell tales—unless they advanced his cause. Shivetya had the mind and soul of an immortal spider. Shivetya had no remorse, no compassion, knew only his task and his will to end it. He was the Company’s ally but he was not the Company’s friend. He would destroy the Company instantly if that suited an altered purpose and he was in a position to do so.
Sleepy meant to cover her back. She approached Baladitya. “Where’s Blade?” Baladitya had begun gushing discoveries he had made since being handed his mission. Sleepy felt a twinge of guilt. She remembered Baladitya’s kind of excitement, long ago and far away. But being responsible for thousands of people, pursuing a timetable with very little slippage built in, left no opportunity for simple pleasures. That made her cranky and curt, sometimes.
“He’s down below. He doesn’t come up much anymore.” Irked, Sleepy looked around for someone young enough to gallop a mile down into the earth. She spied Tobo and Sahra arguing. Not exactly unusual. But not so frequently lately. They had been butting heads since Tobo entered puberty.
One of Tobo’s djinn could get down there faster than the youngest pair of legs. “Tobo!” Sleepy beckoned.
Exasperation flashed across the boy’s face. Everyone wanted something from him.
He did respond. He showed no defiance. He never did. His calm half-caste face settled into perfect nonexpression. Nor did his stance in any way betray what he might be thinking. Sleepy seldom saw anyone so inscrutable. And yet he was so young.
He just stood waiting for her to tell him what she wanted. “Blade is down below somewhere. Send one of your messengers to tell him I want him up here.”
“Can’t do it.”
“I don’t have any here. I’ve explained before. The Unknown Shadows hate the plain. It’s very difficult to get them to come up here. Most of those who do come refuse to have anything to do with people. I don’t want them to have anything to do with people. It puts them in a bad temper every time. You have a whole regiment cluttering up the place. There must be a man somewhere who doesn’t have something else to do.”
Sarcastic infidel. There were twelve hundred men cooling their heels around the fortress, waiting to lead the treasure train, doing nothing useful in the interim. “I was looking for something a little faster.” Once the Company was on the barren plain, even with Shivetya working wonders, there was little time to waste.
There had been no good news from Suvrin, either. Tobo should have gone with him. Or Doj or Lady, at the very least. Someone better equipped to deal with the Unknown Shadows. But at the very least there should have been word that a bridgehead had been established.
Baladitya said, “Then you’d better go down there yourself. Because he isn’t going to respond to any lesser authority.”
“Because he hears voices calling him. He’s trying to figure out what to answer them.”
“Darn!” Sleepy broke out in what, for her, was a blistering blue streak. “That wrangle-franging mudsucker! I’m going to...”
Tobo and Baladitya grinned. Sleepy shut up. She remembered times when her Company brothers would get her going to see just how creative she would be in avoiding use of common profanity. She muttered, “I should’ve written you people the way you really are. Not you, Baladitya. You’re actually a human being.” She glared at Tobo. “You I’m beginning to wonder about.”
“For a nonbeliever,” Baladitya said, of himself.
“Yes. Well. There’re more of you lost souls than there are those of us who know the Truth. I must be God’s Beacon in the Land of Our Sorrows.”
Baladitya frowned, then caught on. Sleepy was actually poking fun at her religion’s attitude toward those outside it, all the unbelievers who made up the population of the Land of Our Sorrows. Which, in an earlier age, when the Vehdna were more numerous and more enthusiastic about rescuing the infidel from damnation, had been called the Realm of War.
Only Believers lived inside the Realm of Peace.
Sleepy snapped, “Tobo, stop trying to sneak away. You’re going down there with me. Just in case he really is hearing voices.”
“That sounds to me like a real good reason for everybody else to stay away.”
“Right behind you, Captain. Ain’t nobody gonna sneak up on your back.”
Sleepy growled. She never got used to the informality and irreverence, though it had been a firm fixture of Company culture since long before her advent.
The soldiers mocked everything and bitched about the rest. Yet the work got done.
Sleepy conscripted a half dozen more companions while hurrying to the stairway down. All from Hsien. She marveled at the results of her relentless training regimen. Many who had joined the Company had been the dregs of the Land of Unknown Shadows, criminals and fugitives, bandits and deserters from the forces of the warlords, and fools who thought a turn with the Soldiers of Darkness would be a great adventure. Sleek, strong and confident, they put on a show now, after months of intense preparation. The clash of steel, probably closer than they anticipated, would be their final tempering.
Sleepy’s descent led her past dozens of men still carrying treasure toward the surface. From behind her Tobo asked, “You sure you aren’t overdoing the tomb robbing? We’ve already got enough to make the whole mob rich.” A fact not lost on some recruits of less than unstained provenance. But temptation was easy to resist when you knew only your Captain could get you off the plain alive and that the Unknown Shadows would hound you pitilessly if you tried anything after you were off.
“We can’t beat the Protector with eight thousand men, Tobo. We need secret weapons and force multipliers. Gold fills both roles.”
Sometimes Tobo was troubled by his Captain. At some point, during her copious free time, she had gotten too close to a library centered around military theory. At times she tended to regurgitate notions like “strategic center of gravity” and “force multipliers” just when that would leave her listeners uncomfortable and concerned.
Tobo was also concerned because the old folks, the veterans, Croaker and Lady and the others, approved. That meant that he was not getting it.
“We’ll take time out here,” Sleepy said when they reached the level of the ice caverns where the Captured had been held. “You men,” she said to those she had had follow, “I want four of you to take a couple of sleepers up top. Longshadow and the Howler. Howler is going to travel with us. With Tobo. A work party will take Longshadow to Hsien for trial. You two. Stay with us.”
The ice caverns seemed timeless, changeless. Frost soon obscured the smaller signs of any traffic. The dead could not be told from the enchanted except on close examination by someone who was knowledgeable.
Sleepy continued, “You men don’t go in there until we call you. You even breathe on those things sometimes, somebody dies.” Which, upon close examination, could be seen to have happened before. The corpses included several of the Captured as well as a handful of the mystery ancients whose presence Shivetya had yet to explain.
There was a great deal the demon would not share.
Sleepy told Tobo, “We want these two to go upstairs without them waking up.”
“I have to break stasis. Otherwise they’ll die as soon as we touch them.”
“I understand that. But I want them kept in a condition where they can’t cause trouble. There won’t be anybody there to control Longshadow if he wakes up all the way.”
“Let me do my job.”
Touchy. Sleepy posted herself between the boy wizard and the cavern entrance in case curiosity overcame the good sense of the soldiers. She marveled at how quickly the ice reasserted itself, at how delicately cobweblike were some of the structures around the sleeping old men. Beyond Howler, now, there was little evidence of the trampling the place had taken when the Captured were released. The cavern floor tilted upward back there, turned, and the cave itself got tight enough to force an explorer to crawl. If you went back far enough you reached a place where the most holy relics of the Deceiver cult had been hidden during an ancient persecution. The Company had destroyed them, giving particular attention to the powerful Books of the Dead.
Sleepy was quiet for a long time after she sent the two sleeping sorcerers to the surface. She and Tobo and two young Bone Warriors resumed their descent into the earth. Sleepy had two things on her mind: The first was the identity of the source of the pale blue light leaking through the ice of the cavern of the old men, to illuminate the human hoard, and second, “What is the center of gravity of the Taglian empire?” She was more interested in the latter. The former was just a curiosity. It did not matter. Probably just the light of another world.
“Soulcatcher,” Tobo replied. “You don’t have to think about that. If you kill the Protector you’re left facing a big snake with no head. The Radisha and the Prahbrindrah Drah step up and announce themselves and the whole thing is over with.” He made it sound simple.
“Except for hunting down the Great General.”
“And Narayan Singh. And the Daughter of Night. But the Protector is the only part we can’t manage using the Black Hounds.”
Sleepy did not miss the way his voice went hollow when he mentioned the Daughter of Night. He had met the witch when she was the Company’s prisoner, before the flight to the Land of Unknown Shadows. Sleepy had not failed to notice the impact the girl had had then.
The Captain missed very little. And forgot nothing. And seldom made an error.
But setting up the old folks to put themselves out of the way, so they would not be peering over her shoulder, proved to be an error of the first order.
The Captain found Blade standing in front of a wall of blackness, rigid, a lantern dangling from his left hand. It was obvious that he had spent a lot of time there. Empty fuel containers littered the steps. The contents of those containers had been meant for Baladitya and the rangers mining the treasure hoards.
The Captain was irked. “Blade! What?...”
Blade gestured for silence. He whispered, “Listen.”
“Just listen.” And when Sleepy had just about exhausted her store of patience, he added, “For that.”
She heard it plainly, though remote, weak, echoing. A cry of, “Help.”
Tobo heard it, too. He jumped. “Captain...”
“Summon your Cat Sith. Or one of the Black Hounds.”
“I can’t do that.” He would not tell her that he had exceeded his instructions by sending most of the Unknown Shadows to help Croaker and Lady.
“They’d refuse to come down here.”
“I can’t. They’re partners, not slaves.”
Sleepy grumbled to herself about damnation and consorting with demons.
“You can’t go any farther than this,” Blade said, answering a question that had not been asked. “I’ve tried a thousand times. There isn’t enough willpower in the Company to move another step downward. I can’t even throw one of these oil jars.”
Sleepy asked, “Are any of them full?”
Sleepy picked up three full pots. She dropped two at Blade’s feet, told him, “Step back.” The oil from the broken jars could not be intimidated by a supernatural darkness. “Now light it.”
“Set it on fire.”
With considerable reluctance Blade tilted his lantern and let a few drops of burning oil spill.
The stairwell filled with flame.
“Damn!” Tobo squealed. “What did you do that for?”
“Can you see now?” Sleepy had an arm up to shield her face from the heat.
The blackness had not been able to overpower the flames.
Tobo told her, “Just two more steps down there’s a floor. With coins scattered around on it.”
Sleepy lowered her arm. She stepped past Blade. Tobo followed. Stunned, Blade again tried to push forward. He staggered. There was none of the resistance he expected.
Why not, suddenly?
Blade was sure there would have been no change had he started a fire himself. “Captain, I’d be very careful.”
The darkness had been waiting.
The voice was louder and more insistent. And clear enough to be recognized.
Tobo echoed Blade. “Captain, be very careful indeed. This isn’t possible. The man has to be dead.”
Goblin’s plaints sounded increasingly urgent.
The Unholy Land
We had been in the holy land of my imagination for four days. Nothing had been gained. Something had been lost. An old Company hand named Spiff was dead. Likewise, Cho Dai Cho, alias JoJo, the Nyueng Bao who had been One-Eye’s indifferent bodyguard for so long.
Shadows had gotten them the first night. Killer shadows that had escaped the glittering plain after the forvalaka’s breakout had damaged the Khatovar shadowgate. Shadows that had depopulated this part of Khatovar.
Once we knew they were there we had little trouble luring and destroying them. We had had plenty of experience. But the alarm method was awfully unpleasant.
It could have been worse. The fact of regional devastation had inspired everyone to a higher state of readiness.
During subsequent nights we eliminated a total of nine shadows. I hoped that augured well for the rest of this world. I hoped they were now that uncommon.
The Black Hounds helped destroy the shadows. They hated their undomesticated cousins from the plain. And feared them greatly. Though these shadows seemed much less aggressive than those we had encountered in the past.
They ranged afar, too, and found no living people south of Khatovar’s equivalent of the Dandha Presh. Of the forvalaka they found little sign, either. Its trail, though, they were able to uncover. Apparently it was so plain my ravens suspected that it had been left that way on purpose.
“You really want to cross those mountains again?” Swan asked.
Lady remarked, “He looks exhausted already, doesn’t he? And we haven’t walked a foot.”
I admitted, “This would be a great time to have one of those flying carpets.”
“There’re a lot of things we could use. Several of the black stallions from Charm would be handy. So would a hundred more fireball throwers. You wouldn’t steal Sleepy’s horse.”
“Well, I couldn’t, could I? It’s the last one left. She’d notice it was missing.”
“But she isn’t missing you and me and the rest of these droppings beneath the roost of the rooks of dim wittedness.”
“That’s a cute image,” Swan said. “Here come the lead birds of the flock.” Murgen. Thai Dei and Uncle Doj were approaching. Like the rest of the band they wanted to know, “What now?” and I had promised to tell them this afternoon.
Murgen asked, “So what’re we going to do, boss?”
“Go get it. We can’t stay here. The shadows wiped out almost all the game.”
They just kill. They will kill bugs if the passion takes them. Large animals they overlook only when they have the opportunity to suck the life out of something human.
Murgen asked, “You think that’s why she didn’t hang around here?”
Only part of it. “She does have to eat.” A glance around told me the fire in their bellies for revenge no longer burned so hot.
Doj said, “But there is food here. And it’s not that hard to find. I’ve seen wild pigs and a species of miniature deer that I didn’t recognize. I’ve seen rabbits and several kinds of smaller rodents. I’d say there was food enough if she wanted it. I’d also say the shadows haven’t been active here for a long time. Otherwise I wouldn’t have seen the animals I have. The monster had to be rejoining her allies. And the shadows had to be sent. To spy on us.”
I said, “Do go on.”
“I’ve considered several alternate frames for the evidence. Maybe it does add up to nothing more than the surface picture. A raid by an insane monstrosity. But I think that is just too simple. I feel there has to be more. Insanity and revenge as motives don’t seem adequate. But if she’s working with someone local...”
I had been supposing almost from the moment I broke out of my coma. I did not have enough information to support my guesswork, though.
“The monster had to know she would be pursued. The Soldiers of Darkness have that reputation. And they’ve tried to kill her before, with much weaker provocation.”
“And Goblin also tried to help her, as I recall. Which she repaid by turning on him before he could do her any good.”
Doj continued, “She had to get through two shadowgates to reach Hsien. Which she knew, somehow, was where One-Eye could be found. Both shadowgates, as far as she knew, were damaged. So even if she was safe on the roads she could expect to be vulnerable at the gates. But she didn’t get hurt. And then the distance between the gates would be a long one if she got no help from Shivetya. We have no reason to believe he helped her. On its face it looks like it would’ve been too long and too dangerous and too hungry a journey if One-Eye’s murder was all she hoped to accomplish and could expect no help managing it.”
I turned to Lady, then looked back to Doj. He was as smart as I was. “I see. Of course she couldn’t have managed without help. With the shadows and, especially, with food. She had no chance to feed while she was in Hsien. The Hounds were after her all the time.”
Lady chipped in, “Then she had help from helpers who expected a sizable payback. What might that be?”
“How about the same thing we worked for four years to dig out of the Land of Unknown Shadows?” Murgen said. “The secrets of the shadowgates.”
Heads nodded. I asked, “How would they know? And why would they want it? To stop this gate from leaking? Didn’t Shivetya say they always repair themselves to that level? Tobo and Suvrin never found any that were open, did they?” I assumed Doj would be familiar with Tobo’s adventures.
All eyes were on me. Murgen suggested, “This is Khatovar. Source of the Free Companies.”
“More than four hundred years ago. Closer to five, now. They might not even remember.”
“And they must have some knowledge of shadowgates. They got Bowalk through this one, in and out of Hsien, then back through here again. Without destroying anything.”
Lady said, “Another thing we can infer is that someone here knows something about controlling shadows.”
“Implicit in the fact that Bowalk made it to Hsien and back again. As well as in the fact that we should’ve had more shadows to deal with here if a horde did break out and devastate the world when Bowalk came through the gate the first time. There’s game, Doj says. If those were feral shadows we destroyed they would’ve killed all the game. Those things were here to watch us.”
I growled. “Damn! Murgen. All that time at Khang Phi. You ever hear tell of any Shadowmasters that never were accounted for? We’re not going to have to butt heads with Longshadow’s long-lost mom, are we?”
“They’re accounted for. Any that turn up here would have to be home grown.” Which was possible. Two of the three we had destroyed in our world were exactly that. One had been one of the Lady’s henchwomen believed dead but gone fugitive instead.
Continued talk led to the notion that we might have been lured to Khatovar specifically so we could be stripped of whatever knowledge we might possess.
Even now Lady remained a tremendous repository of arcane information.
I went off alone with my raven companions. One I told to take the Unknown Shadows out scouting, ranging as far as necessary to find the nearest natives. The other I sent to find Tobo. It carried a detailed and honest report, just as if Sleepy had sent us to Khatovar and expected regular communiques.
I hoped Tobo might have some useful suggestions. I hoped he knew more about Khatovar than he had pretended.
Neither Lady nor I could sleep. The white raven had not taken long to find people. An army was headed our way, though it was still on the far side of the mountains. The forvalaka was there, accompanying a family of wizards who, according to reports from Tobo, were the uncontested overlords of modern Khatovar.
Tobo’s source was indirect. He had consulted the scholar Baladitya, who took our questions to the demon Shivetya. Shivetya then tacitly acknowledged his ability to monitor events in the worlds connected to the glittering plain.
The rulers of Khatovar were a sprawling, brawling, turbulent clan of wizards known as the Voroshk, which was simply their family name. The founding father’s talented blood had bred true. And often. He had been a man of immense appetites. There were several hundred Voroshk today. Their regime was cruel. Its sole purpose was to further enrich and empower the Family. Following the disaster caused by the forvalaka’s breakthrough into Khatovar, the Voroshk had learned to manage the shadows. It would be the Voroshk who had sent the shadows we had destroyed.
Kina, or Khadi, was no longer worshipped in the world bearing the name that meant Khadi’s Gate. The Voroshk had exterminated the Children of Kina.
Nevertheless, once each year, sometime during the time when the Deceivers would have celebrated their Festival of Lights, somebody managed to strangle a member of the Family and get away.
Chances were good that the Voroshk knew their history well enough to recall that the Free Companies of Khatovar had gone out as missionaries on behalf of the Mother of Night. They might well dread the Queen of Darkness’s return.
My own supernatural allies were under instruction to avoid notice except in instances where Khatovar’s shadows could be picked off without risk of our secret strength being revealed.
Her face against my chest, Lady murmured, “These Voroshk sound like bad people, hon. As bad as any you’ve run into before.”
“Nobody’s as bad as me. But you need to worry about this. There’s a whole family of them. And they don’t squabble amongst themselves. Much. Even when I had the Ten on their shortest rein they were always trying to stab each other in the back.”
There was a message there, under her teasing. I held her and told her, “I’ll retreat to the plain rather than risk the confrontation. We can always sneak back here some other time.” But I would not be happy if I had to let Bowalk get away yet again.
I drifted off wondering about the minds of the Voroshk. Wondering about this mysterious world that had sent our forbrethren out so long ago, on a crusade that had gotten lost. Were the Voroshk unwitting pawns of Kina? Could they be yet another device by which the Dark Mother might try to bring on the Year of the Skulls?
“No,” Lady said when I suggested it aloud. “We know whose role that is.”
“Don’t want to think about Booboo, hon. Just want to go to sleep.”
Goblin denied nothing. “She kept me alive somehow. She intended to use me. But she never did anything to me. I spent most of the time sleeping. Dreaming ugly dreams. Probably her dreams.”
The little wizard’s voice was barely a whisper. It husked. He seemed permanently on the verge of tears. The irrepressible spirit that had made him the Goblin of old seemed to have fled.
His audience did nothing to make him welcome or feel wanted. He was not welcome or wanted. He had spent four years sleeping with the Queen of Night, the Mother of Deceivers.
“She lives in the bleakest place you can imagine. It’s all death and corruption.”
“And madness,” Sahra added without looking up from the trousers she was mending.
Tobo asked, “Where’s the Lance?” Goblin had been asked before. The Lance of Passion was the soul of the Company. As much as the Annals did, it tied past and present together. It went all the way back to the Company’s departure from Khatovar. It had symbolic power and real power. It was a shadowgate key. And it was capable of causing a Goddess terrible pain.
Goblin sighed. “There’s nothing but the head left. Inside her, from when I stabbed her. She made it migrate through her flesh. She’s taken it into her womb.”
The Captain, obviously uncomfortable with this heathen talk, snapped, “Would any of you infidels care to explain that? Tobo?”
“I don’t know anything about religion, Captain. Not the practical stuff, anyway.”
None of the infidels had a thought.
Sleepy had a few. One was that Kina was not a real Goddess. Kina was just an incredibly powerful monster. All the Gunni Gods and Goddesses were nothing but powerful monsters. There was only one God... She continued staring at Goblin, wondering if he was worth believing, wondering if the best course was just to kill him. The silence stretched. Goblin remained immensely uncomfortable. As he should be, considering the circumstances and his limited ability to explain what had happened to him.
There was no way anyone would ever trust him.
The Captain said, “I have a thought, Tobo.”
Silence stretched again as the boy waited on her and she waited for him to ask what her thought was. Grown-up silliness.
Sahra said, “Why don’t we have Goblin go help Croaker with Khatovar? He’ll be more comfortable with his old friends, anyway.”
Sleepy gave her a dirty look. Then Tobo did the same. Sahra smiled, bit the thread she was using, put her needle away. “That’s done, then.”
Goblin’s froglike face had lost the little color that had survived his time underground. It lost all expression. The man within was trying hard to remain unreadable. In trying he gave away the fact that he did not want to join the expedition to Khatovar.
Maybe he just dreaded facing the forvalaka again.
“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” the Captain said. Coldly. “Croaker sent a raven whining for help. He has all those unpredictable soldiers and sorcerers headed his way. Goblin. You can still cut it, can’t you? Sorcery-wise? You haven’t lost the knack?”
The sad little wizard shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. I’d have to try. Not that I would be any good against a real talent even on my best day. I never was.”
“It’s decided. You’ll take the Khatovar road. Everyone else. We’re done here. We’re moving out. Tobo, find the Chu Ming brothers. They’re going to go with Goblin.”
The news that movement was imminent spread quickly. The remaining troops were glad to hear it. They had stayed here in this uncomfortable, frightening place far too long while the higher-ups fussed about nothing. Rations were growing short, despite all the years of preparation.
I returned from consultations with the white raven. “They’ve reached the downhill side of the pass.”
Lady observed, “They’re moving fast, then.”
“They’ve begun to wonder if we suspect something. They’ve begun to wonder why so few of their shadow scouts come back and why the few that do never came close to us. So they left their infantry and heavy cavalry and artillery behind in an effort to get here before we can do a lot to get ready if we do expect trouble. The bird tells me they’re also preparing some sort of surprise but it couldn’t get close enough to find out what.”
Swan grumbled, “I don’t understand why they weren’t just sitting here waiting for us.”
“Probably because there’s not much here to eat, it’s a long way from where things are happening and they couldn’t know when we’d arrive. Or even if we would. They have an empire up north to keep in line. And if they were camped out here, chances are we’d just not bother to come off the plain. Also, I would imagine that they really expected us to follow the forvalaka once we understood what had happened here. So they could trap us north of the Dandha Presh. In familiar territory, closer to home. Which I would’ve run into if I didn’t have the Black Hounds and whatnot to go scouting.”
“On top of the distance for them, there’re a raft of superstitions about this country. Plus there’s just been a change in the head of the Voroshk family. Somebody called the Old One died unexpectedly about the time we climbed onto the plain. His replacement seems to be more action-oriented.”
“And you got all that by talking to crows?”
“They’re smart birds, Swan. Smarter than a lot of people. They make wonderful scouts.”
Doj asked, “What is our strategy now?”
“We sit tight. We wait. We let the Black Hounds play. They like to tease horses.”
Everybody looked at me with that exasperated expression I recalled from those days when I was the Captain and played my cards close to my chest. I shuddered, forced myself to open up further.
“They’ve separated a small light cavalry force in order to make more speed. The Unknown Shadows will start tormenting the horses after nightfall. Subtly, of course. We don’t want to lose them. The bigger ones are going to work on the forvalaka by letting her see them as One-Eye’s ghost. I’m hoping she’ll rush on down here ahead of her friends. So we can kill her and get out before they get here.” There. I had shared.
I felt lousy. I felt like something was sure to go wrong now that I had talked about it.
Silence. Which stretched. Until Murgen finally asked, “Will it work?”
“How the fuck should I know? Ask me again this time tomorrow.”
Lady asked, “What’re we going to do about Goblin?”
“Keep an eye on him. Don’t let him get near One-Eye’s spear.” That all seemed self-evident to me.
Silence stretched again. Then Swan said, “Here’s a thought. Why don’t we leave Goblin here when we pull out?”
I grumped, “I thought he was your friend.”
“Goblin was. But we’ve already decided that this can’t be the Goblin we knew. Right?”
“But there’s a chance the Goblin we knew might still be inside him waiting to be let back out. Like the rest of us when we were buried under the plain.”
“And us guys who weren’t aren’t so sure about you.”
“Just say I’ve developed a soft streak. We’ll treat the guy like Goblin till he does something that makes us want to hang him. Then we’ll string him up.” I had to posture some. It was expected of me.
Murgen observed, “The Captain is still solving her personnel problems by exiling the questionables to Khatovar.”
“And that’s funny?” Because he was smiling.
“Of course it is. In the sense that neither you nor I nor Lady would’ve considered doing anything like that while we were in charge.”
“Everybody’s a sarcastic social critic,” I told Lady. “Don’t you let on that you can’t kick Goblin’s ass all the way to Hsien when he gets here. I’ll try to keep him so busy he doesn’t have time to get into trouble. But it’ll help if he believes he has to walk a narrow line, too.”
“He won’t have to be convinced of that. He isn’t stupid.”
“How much longer you going to need us?” Swan asked He had begun shuffling a deck of cards. Murgen and Thai Dei seemed eager to join him in a pastime that had made a comeback during our sojourn in the Land of Unknown Shadows.
“Go ahead. There’s not much to do now but wait. And watch Uncle Doj sneak around with all those snail shells like he can’t even conceive of the idea that anybody would be alert enough to notice.” That was how the Unknown Shadows had crossed the plain and gotten here. So who on my team was in cahoots with Tobo and the Captain?
I could not wait forever, though. Nor did I have any intention of facing any Voroshk soldiers. My only quarrel with the Voroshk sprang from their presumption that the Company existed only as an as yet untapped resource.
I deplore that attitude wherever I encounter it.
There was a full moon in Khatovar that night. I went strolling in the moonlight. My ravens came and went. They traveled like lightning as long as I did not try to watch them do it.
The Unknown Shadows are every bit as wicked and dangerous as Hsien folklore indicates. It was almost too easy for them to taunt and lure the forvalaka away from the umbrella of protection offered by the Voroshk sorcerers.
The Captain slithered up beside Suvrin, lifted her head just enough to be able to see the shadowgate separating the plain from home. “We’re only thirty miles from where you were born, Suvrin.” She had tried for years now to think of a better nickname than Suvrin, which meant Junior in Sangel, his native tongue. She had not found anything more exotic that fit.
“Less. I wonder if anybody’ll remember me.”
Behind them thousands waited anxiously. Hungrily. Way too much time had gotten wasted crossing the plain. Sleepy brushed aside a twinge of guilt.
“How many of them are there?” she asked. A camp lay just below the shadowgate. Built on the remains of old Company camps, it looked to have been there a long time. Its shelters had a makeshift but permanent appearance. They were part of a squalor which characterized all things military under the Protector’s rule.
“There are fifty-six people. Including nine women and twenty-four children.”
“That isn’t exactly enough to stop a breakout attempt.”
“We aren’t why they’re there. They’re armed but they aren’t real soldiers. They don’t pay any attention to the road or the gate. During the day most of them just work their fields.” Several feeble examples of primitive agriculture lay scattered along the banks of the creek at the bottom of the hill. “I thought about jumping them but decided I’d better wait till Tobo could look them over. I think they’re really here because of the shadows.”
“We’ll send commandos down after sunset. Roll them up before they know what hit them.” The Captain was not pleased with her protege’s indecision.
Suvrin said, “Better have Tobo check them out first. Really. They’re always more active after dark.”
“It’s almost twilight now. Hang on. You’ll see what I mean.”
“Don’t make me wait all night, Suvrin.” Sleepy eased back. Once she could rise without being seen from below she did so, strode to her waiting staff. “There’s a garrison in our way. Not a large one. Shouldn’t be any trouble because they don’t appear to be expecting anything. I want to make sure none of them get away once we move. Runmust. Iqbal. Head back up the road. Have everybody fall out. Maintaining plain discipline. Tell them to eat. To get their weapons ready. No fires permitted, though. We don’t want to show any smoke or light. We might not go in till after midnight but I want everyone ready to go when I say it’s time to go.”
Relays of messengers carried word back along the column.
“There. Watch. That’s what I mean,” Suvrin said, pointing. Tobo and the Captain lay to either side of him. The garrison below had begun an exhaustive examination of the area around the shadowgate, illuminating the area from several directions using a variety of sources of light. “They’re obviously looking for leaks right now. It’ll get more interesting in a minute.”
Soon afterward a three-man team brought up a thin-necked earthenware jar of about a gallon’s capacity mounted in a wooden rack which they crowded right up against the sorcerous boundary that prevented the shadows, the Unforgiven Dead, from leaving the plain.
The lighting was bright but still not good enough for even Tobo’s sharp young eyes to discern clearly what was going on but, whatever they were up to, those people were being extremely cautious.
“I’ve got it!” Tobo said after watching intently for about ten minutes. “They’re trying to catch shadows. They’ve got a tiny little hole bored through the barrier there and they’re hoping an overeager shadow will pop through it into their jar.”
“They work for Soulcatcher,” Sleepy said, maybe just to dampen the boy’s enthusiasm. She now understood why Suvrin had been so cautious.
“Of course they do. Who else? We need to think this over. If she has a whole bunch of shadows under her control...”
“It’s too late to turn back.” As though he had suggested anything of the sort. Sleepy rolled onto her back, rubbed her forehead with her left hand. The stars above were the stars of her childhood. She had not seen them for far too long. “I missed our stars.”
Suvrin replied, “I did, too. I’ve spent a lot of time here just enjoying them.”
“You haven’t sent even one scout through yet?”
“I really haven’t had the chance. I didn’t want to commit you to anything by taking everything into my own hands. Anyway, I had to fix the gate before I could do anything else and I’ve gotten maybe an hour a night when I could get down there to work on that.”
“It’s ready, now, though. Isn’t it? I’ve got twelve thousand men up here. Don’t tell me we have to wait some more.”
“You can go through any time.”
Tobo grunted. “The Nef.”
Sleepy rolled back onto her stomach. Sure enough, the dreamwalkers had appeared down by the locals. They remained transparent. They jumped and gestured. The workers beyond the barrier ignored them.
“They can’t see them,” Tobo said.
The Nef abandoned their effort to communicate with the shadowcatchers and swept upslope to harangue the watchers on the lip of the plain.
“What’re they trying to tell us?” Sleepy asked.
Tobo replied, “I don’t know. I can actually hear a whisper sometimes but I still can’t understand them. If Dad was here... He was almost a dreamwalker. I think he might understand them a little bit.”
“It’s probably safe to assume that there’s something they don’t want us to do. That’s what it always has been once somebody does figure it out. But doing what we want hasn’t ever led to trouble for us. Has it?”
The wait stretched. Suvrin said, “It’s always like this.” He rolled over. “Why don’t we watch for shooting stars?”
Tobo said, “I’m going down there. I want to hear what they’re saying.”
“Ignoring the fact that they’ll see you, when did you learn to speak Sangel?” Sleepy asked.
“I’ve picked up a few words from Suvrin. We had to do something during those tedious journeys to the shadowgates. Although I don’t think these guys will be speaking anything but Taglian. They have to be people the Protector trusts. Meaning people whose families are where she can eat them up if she’s disappointed with anybody’s behavior. They aren’t going to see me.”
Doj had taught him well. He was all but invisible descending that slope, using no magic at all. The shadowcatchers noticed nothing. But the dreamwalkers did. They became agitated. Then the few shadows in the vicinity, not swarming beside the road with all their kin, hoping some soldier would stupidly break the protective barrier, also began to scoot from hiding place to hiding place erratically. One darted up and through the pinhole into the earthenware jar.
The shadowcatchers congratulated one another. In a moment they had both jar and barrier sealed, the latter with an almost invisible bit of bamboo. Tobo sensed powerful spells in its wood. Soulcatcher did not want the more potent shadows pushing through that valve.
The capture of a single shadow satisfied the shadowcatchers. They packed up for the night.
“That’s it?” Sleepy asked.
“That’s the first time I’ve actually seen them catch one,” Suvrin replied. “I guess it doesn’t happen very often.”
Moments after the shadowcatchers left, Tobo stepped through the shadowgate into the world of his birth. Suvrin had made his repairs correctly.
The boy took a deep breath. He listened to the soft noises made by the commandos already coming down from the plain. There had been no alarm as he had passed through the shadowgate and there was none when the commandos began to ease through. Plainly, the Protector did not fear the south. Though she had leapt up from the grave a few times herself, she did not anticipate that kind of refractory behavior on the part of her enemies.
“Water sleeps,” Tobo told the night, and began to cast a spell that would send the shadowcatcher crew into a deep sleep. He had learned the spell from One-Eye, who had stolen it from Goblin over a hundred years ago.
Always his thoughts found their way back to Goblin.
Kina was the Mother of Deceivers. Suppose she had done nothing whatsoever to the little wizard? Nobody would believe that. And nobody would ever trust him again. Tons of time and resources would be wasted keeping an eye on him.
Was that it? Was Goblin just a diversion? Was there any way to find out?
He was supposed to be on fire with the creative brilliance of youth. He ought to be able to devise something workable.
The prisoners looked on in wide-eyed amazement as battalion after battalion marched down off the plain. An army this size had not been seen since the Kiaulune wars. Soulcatcher had won the laurels in that round because the Company had been hopelessly outclassed in matters of sorcery.
The Radisha Drah and the Prahbrindrah Drah had prominent places in that parade. Clad in imperial finery, accompanied by dozens of Taglian royal banners, their presence was a declaration Sleepy wanted made early and often.
It was a declaration that was wasted here, of course, because none of these witnesses would be allowed to carry the news out ahead of the advance of the invasion force. But Sleepy thought it would be a good idea for the Prince and Princess to begin practicing to reassume their historic roles.
Suvrin was gone already. As were scores more pickets and scouts and recon soldiers. The Soldiers of Darkness were loose. Poor Suvrin was having to run ahead again, now tasked to close the southern end of the pass through the Dandha Presh. A job for which he needed no special training. It was the one he had held at the time when Sleepy had taken him prisoner, while on her way to release us poor old Captured from our durance beneath the plain.
Once Suvrin was sure the pass could not be used by rumor-mongers from the south side he was supposed to go on through and seize the military works at Charandaprash. Which were likely to have no garrison at all, considering Soulcatcher’s attitude toward her armed forces.
Suvrin would know that layout well before he got there. Tobo had brought sack after sack of old snail shells off the plain once the way was open. An unseen flood had begun to spread across the region once known as the Shadowlands. Tobo would know everything his creatures knew. Tobo would have those creatures carry the news to anyone else who needed to know it.
Tension ran high and continued to rise. Those who knew Soulcatcher knew she would hear of the invasion eventually. Her response was sure to be violent and showy, swift and unpredictable and nothing anyone wanted to endure.
The Taglian Territories:
The Blind Measures of Despair
Narayan groaned when the girl wakened him. He regained control quickly, however. The Protector was out there somewhere, never closer than she had been these past two days. The Daughter of Night’s valiant efforts, using talents she did not understand, had been just enough to prevent their capture. But it was a close thing every day. And the game might not last much longer. He and the girl had nothing left. If the Protector brought in some of the shadows she controlled...
“What is it?” he breathed. He fought the pain that was with him always nowadays.
“Something’s happened. Something big. I can feel it. It’s... I don’t know. It’s like my mother woke up, took a look around, then went back to sleep.”
Narayan did not understand. He said so.
“It was her. I know. She touched me.” From confusion the girl moved swiftly toward assurance and confidence. “She wanted me to know that she’s still there. She wanted me to hang on. She wanted me to know things will be getting better soon.”
Narayan, who had known the girl’s birth mother well, suspected the child took after her aunt, the Protector, far more. The Protector was changeable. The Daughter of Night’s moods could shift with a change in the breeze. He wished she were more stable, like her mother. Although Lady could become obsessively focused. For example, she was determined to even scores with him and the Deceiver cult. She had been Kina’s tool but had no love or respect whatsoever for the Goddess.
“Did you hear me, Narayan? She’s there! She’s not going to lay low much longer.”
“I heard. And I really am as excited as you are. But there are wonders and wonders. We still have to get away from the Protector.” He indicated the sky to their west. Crows swarmed not half a mile down the long, scrubby slope.
Soulcatcher had her obsessions, too. This chase had gone on forever, successfully for neither party thereto. Did the Protector have no other work to do? Who was managing Taglios and its territories? Deviltry was sure to flourish in her absence.
From the beginning of the chase Narayan had been confident that Soulcatcher would get bored and would turn to something else. She always did.
But not this time. This time she was dogged.
No telling with the Protector. She might have had a vision of the future. She might be unable to think of a more amusing hobby. She was twisted inside. Her motives might not always make sense even to her.
The crows began to fan out to the north of what must be Soulcatcher’s position. They seemed to be interested in a slice of pie arc. They drifted on the breeze, not working hard, slowly moving away. Narayan and the Daughter of Night watched without moving. Crows were sharp of eye. If the two most holy Deceivers could see them, the crows could see the Deceivers in turn—if the girl’s erratic talent failed for even a moment.
A single bird glided to the southeast, rather drunkenly, Narayan thought. Soon no black bird could be seen in any direction.
Narayan said, “Let’s move on now. While we can. You know, I think that haze down south might be the Dandha Presh. We’ll be in the mountains in another week. She won’t have a hope of catching us there.”
He was whistling in the dark. And they both knew it.
The Daughter of Night led the way. She was far more mobile than Narayan. Frequently she grew impatient with Narayan’s inability to keep up. Sometimes she cursed him and hit him. He suspected that she would desert him if she had any other resource. But her horizons never did extend far beyond the boundaries of their cult and she understood that the living saint had far more influence with the Deceivers than did any ill-schooled female messiah whose status as such was accepted only because it bore the living saint’s chop of authenticity.
Narayan’s lagging actually saved them. The girl was squatting in brush, looking back with ill-concealed irritation. “There’s a clearing. It’s big. Not much cover. Shall we wait until dark? Or should we work our way around?” It was much too difficult for her to keep them invisible when they were in the open.
Narayan sometimes wondered what she might have become had she grown up with her birth mother. Lady would have turned her into a dark terror by now, he was certain. Not for the first or even the hundredth time he wished Kina had allowed him to sacrifice Lady the day he had claimed the newly born Daughter of Night. His life since would have been much easier had the woman died then. “Let me look.”
Narayan crouched. Pain clawed his bad leg as though someone was slashing him with a dull knife. He peered out at a stony waste almost devoid of life—except for a stunted, twisted stump of a tree smack in the middle. It stood just over five feet tall. There was a familiar feeling to it. He had not seen it before but knew he should recognize it. “Don’t move,” he told the Daughter of Night. “Don’t even breathe fast. There’s something not quite right out there.”
He froze. The girl froze. She never questioned him in these things. He was right every time.
It came to him eventually. He whispered. “That’s the Protector, that stump. Wrapped inside an illusion. She’s used the trick before. I heard about it when I was a prisoner of the Black Company. It was one of the devices she used when she was stalking them and they kept telling each other to look out for it. Look carefully at the root of that branch that twists around twice and ends in a cluster of little twigs. See the crow hiding there?”
“Back away carefully. Slowly. What?... Freeze!”
The girl froze. She remained unmoving for many minutes, until Narayan began to relax. She murmured, “What was it?” Neither the stump nor the crow had done anything alarming.
“There was something...” But he was no longer sure. It had been there in the corner of his eye for an instant but not there when he looked directly. “Over by that big red boulder.”
“Hush!” The girl stared in another direction. “I think... There. Something... I can’t see anything but I can feel it. I think it’s watching the tree...”
Both felt rather than heard the growl from behind them.
Such was their self-discipline, after years on the run, that neither so much as flinched. Something large and dark and not quite there trotted past. The living saint’s mouth opened wide but no scream came forth. The girl drifted closer to him without making any sudden movement.
What seemed like a series of large black cutouts of an unfamiliar animal flickered across the open ground. It looked nothing like a dog. It had too many limbs. But in its brief moment beside the stump it lifted a hind leg and loosed a river.
And then, of course, it was not there anymore. But Soulcatcher was, in her own form. And she was in a towering rage.
“Something has changed,” Narayan gasped through his pain.
“Something more than Mother.”
Something more than the Mother of Night.
Something that, from that moment onward, left them feeling as though they were being watched every moment—even when they could see nothing around them anywhere.
The Lords of the Upper Air
My ravens worked hard. Within the same hour I learned that Sleepy had broken out into our homeworld and that the forvalaka had left the Voroshk and was rushing our way. I began issuing orders immediately. Bowalk could not possibly arrive for hours but I wanted to make sure that each of my companions was exactly positioned and that all of my resources could be brought to bear almost instantly. Willow Swan followed me around reminding me that most of the fussing I was doing was exactly the sort of half-ass officiousness I resented from Sleepy.
“You want to make your future home in Khatovar, Swan?”
“Hey, don’t kill the messenger.”
I grunted unhappily, went and collected my sweetheart. “It’s time we got dressed up. Get ready for the show.”
“Ooh!” she said. “I’ve always had a weakness for men in black with birds on their shoulders.”
Our preparations were complete. Our dozen surviving fireball projectors were positioned, I felt, to perfection to bring the forvalaka under saturating fire as she attacked me. If that did not destroy her itself it would drive her to me, directly onto One-Eye’s black spear. I looked forward to our confrontation. That was unusual for me. I am not one of those men who enjoys the killing side of this business.
The ravens had the monster just an hour away. People were having a last meal so we could get the fires all put out before it arrived. There was a pig that Doj had killed. It went fast. Not many vegetarians in my crew.
Murgen joined Lady and me where we were playing paper, rock, knife with Willow Swan. “Goblin’s here. He just came over the rim of the plain. There’s two guys with him. That’s a good look for you.” He had not yet seen the new Widowmaker armor in action.
“Bless the Captain and her infinite wisdom,” I grumbled. “That was quick. Let’s keep an eye on the little shit.” Like that needed repeating. I asked Lady, “Should I put him to work?”
“Absolutely. Right out front. One-Eye was his best friend, wasn’t he?”
“Murgen, when he gets down here, after we talk to him, I want him positioned down there where I put the pair of two-inchers. We don’t know if either of those has anything left in them. Then have those guys fall back to cover the approach to the shadowgate. You and Thai Dei stay with Goblin.”
Murgen offered me a carefully blank look.
“If you have to, stick him. Or bop him over the head. If he gives you a reason.”
“Which might be?”
“I don’t know. You’re an intelligent adult. Don’t you think you can tell if he needs smacking around?”
“Don’t you think that that’s what those guys with him are there for?”
I had not thought of that. It did seem probable. “Are they men we know well enough to trust completely?”
“I couldn’t make out who they were yet when I came over here.”
“Then the instruction stands.”
I studied Goblin intently. I had not seen him since before I had gone underground. He had aged a lot. “Last I knew of you, you’d deserted.”
“I’m sure One-Eye explained all that.” The voice was the same but there was an indefinable difference in the man that, probably, had more to do with time and the betrayals of memory than it did with any evil new within him, but I have never gone far wrong by being suspicious.
Goblin’s stature approached the extreme low altitude end of normal humanity. And he was wide, despite not having eaten well in recent years. And he had almost no hair at all anymore. Nor did he smile readily. He seemed infinitely tired, as though he labored under a weight of weariness that stretched all the way back into antiquity.
My long nap in the cave of the ancients had not been all that restful, either.
“One-Eye was a notorious liar. The way I heard it—fifteen years after the fact—was that it was all your idea and he just got dragged along.”
“The Captain was satisfied.” He did not argue and he did not make light. And that was the last clue I needed. There was no humor left in this Goblin. That was the big change.
“Good for her. You’ve arrived just in time. The forvalaka is only minutes away. We’re going to kill it this time. You didn’t lose any of your skills while you were trapped, did you?”
Something stirred in the deeps of his eyes. It seemed cold and angry but might have been just his irritation because so many pairs of eyes peered at him so intently, so suddenly.
That had to be one of the real old hands. Everyone else was out of the habit, though many still called Lady “Lieutenant” because Sleepy never filled that position officially. Sahra did much of the work despite her official status as an outsider.
Why did we set such store by these tiny distinctions?
“There’s movement out there. Probably the Black Hounds coursing the forvalaka. Which means the monster is getting close.”
“Full alert. Murgen, show Goblin his post.” I clattered and clanked. The armor was mainly costume but it was real and it was heavy.
“Captain!” From farther away. “Down there!” A man stood out of his concealment, pointing.
“Shit!” Lady exploded. “Why the hell didn’t your crows tell us about that?” She dove for cover.
Three flying things were headed toward us from the west, in a V formation. My man had spotted them so far away that, despite their speed, we had time to observe their approach. Eagle-eye there was a guy who deserved a bonus.
The flyers had made the mistake of approaching at an altitude calculated to avoid the notice of the Unknown Shadows. That left them completely vulnerable to detection by the naked eye because it silhouetted them against the clear blue sky on the one day the weather chose to be neither overcast nor rainy.
Lady snapped. “You concentrate on the shape changer, darling. This is a diversion. I’ll deal with it.” She shouted orders. I boomed a few of my own.
She was wrong, of course. The forvalaka was the diversion for those flying Voroshk—though Bowalk would be convinced that the reverse was true. Once they moved closer the airborne sorcerers appeared to be rippling lumps clinging to long fenceposts. They were wrapped in and trailed acres of something resembling black silk cloth.
They must have had some reason to believe that we would not be able to see them. They made no effort not to be noticed.
When they slowed their approach I suspected immediately they wanted to coordinate timing with the forvalaka—and I was right.
A burst of screams and dark fury erupted a scant hundred yards from our most forward post. Unknown Shadows were all over the forvalaka. Exactly as they were supposed to be, suddenly and briefly, at that point.
The moment Bowalk stopped charging to rip at the spooks they faded away.
For that moment she made a wonderful target.
The fireball projectors opened up.
Unfortunately, most that worked sped their blazing, unpredictable missiles toward the Khatovaran sorcerers. Only two light bamboo pieces remained trained on the monster. And one of those gave up the ghost after projecting just one bilous green ball that flew in erractic skips and jerks but did graze the beast along the flank scars she had gained during our previous encounter. She took a solid hit in the shoulder from the other projector.
She could scream.
I did not look away. Lady kept talking, keeping me informed. She told me the flyers had been surprised completely. That made me suspect that there had been little honesty between Lisa Daele Bowalk and the Voroshk sorcerers.
They should have known. All of them.
The Voroshk were not entirely unprepared for trouble. They had surrounded themselves with protective spells which did shunt the lightest fireballs aside—usually from the path of the leader into those of the trailing two. But those spells could not turn everything and they weakened quickly.
I was bracing to receive the charge of the forvalaka when one of the flyers streaked across in front of me, behind Bowalk, tumbling, all that silk aflame. A scream ended abruptly as the sorcerer impacted somewhere to my right.
My strategy was to channel the forvalaka toward me and One-Eye’s spear, hurting it as much as possible as it approached. I had mounted the black spear in the end of a twelve foot bamboo pole to give myself a little added reach. Once Bowalk was pinned, the people with the fireballs could finish her off. Assuming One-Eye’s spear had not lost its potency with his death.
And assuming the people with the fireballs were not busy with the distraction overhead. I risked a glance. The lead flyer was circling back. Whatever he had intended to do he had not, because he had been forced to concentrate on his defenses instead. The remaining Voroshk had come to a halt several hundred yards east of us, smoldering, drifting on the breeze, evidently still alive but just barely. Before I shifted my attention back to the forvalaka I noted that that flyer was gaining altitude very slowly.
A swarm of javelins and arrows buzzed around the werepanther. The darts were all poisoned. Just in case a few did penetrate her skin.
Wonder of wonders! A lot of arrows were sticking. A sort of black haze seemed to cover the monster, making the boundary between her and the rest of the universe appear poorly defined.
Lady was yelling. A lot. Fire discipline was critical. We would be able to create no new fireball-spitting bamboo poles until we were safely back in our own world. Half of those we started this fight with were out of action already. The guys had not been in a real fight for years but they did remember what was what. The fireballs stopped going up even before my wife started yelling again. Several men did take the opportunity to put fireballs into the forvalaka, though. Poor Lisa had no friends.
She was not as invulnerable as I had expected. She began to stagger drunkenly well before I had hoped she would respond to the poisons. The endurance and stamina of her kind were legendary and in our experience were exceeded only by the ferocious vitality of the sorcerers who had belonged to the circle that had been known as the Ten Who Were Taken. Of whom Soulcatcher and the Howler were the last. Of whom there would be no survivors much longer.
I was determined. I had a whole list of people who were going to blaze the way to hell for me.
Now the monster was up again, evidently shaking off the effects of missiles and fireballs and chemicals. She was gathering herself for the charge that would get her in amongst us and render her safe from our most dangerous weapons just when she could start using her jaws and claws.
I do not know what the Voroshk tried to do. I know the fireballs flew again, there was a shudder in the ground like somebody had hit it a few yards away with a ten-thousand-pound hammer, then the forvalaka launched herself my way in a sort of weak, half-hearted leap, one hind paw dragging in the dust. Smoke came off her at a dozen points. The stench of burnt flesh preceded her.
I glimpsed the last Voroshk streaking across the sky behind the monster. He was tumbling.
Bowalk batted at my makeshift pike as she flew toward me. Her effort was weak and slow. The head of One-Eye’s spear entered and passed through the flesh of her right shoulder, which had been injured badly already. I felt it bounce off bone. She screamed. Her weight ripped my weapon out of my hand even though I had the butt of the bamboo pole set firmly against the ground.
Her momentum spun her around. She managed to slap me with a paw and send me ass over appetite before she landed and became preoccupied with the black spear. My armor withstood her claws. I barely knew up from down for a moment but I did keep my head attached to the end of my neck.
I regained possession of my bamboo pole but not of the spear. The forvalaka was writhing around, screaming and snarling and snapping at the spear while my comrades were careful to stay out of her way. The occasional arrow or javelin continued to dart in, when there was no risk of a miss.
The Voroshk remained out of the struggle. One burned on the slope east of us. One rose higher and higher, now yielding streamers of smoke. The last circled cautiously, either looking for an opening or just observing. Each time he started to dart in, a score of bamboo poles pointed his way, offering to welcome him. I suspect most were dead. But he could find out the truth of that only the hard way.
A huge black sword of a design similar to Doj’s Ash Wand came with the Widowmaker costume. I drew it as the forvalaka tried to come at me. I felt almost foolish behind the excitement and fear. It had been decades since I had used a sword anywhere but in practice sessions with Doj. I did not know this one at all. It might be little more than a showpiece. It might snap the first time I struck a blow.
The shapeshifter staggered forward a few steps. Someone hit it a glancing shot with a fireball. Javelins and arrows continued to arrive. It snapped at the wound where One-Eye’s spear stood forth, again. The arrows and javelins all fell out eventually but not that black spear. It was working its way slowly deeper.
I stepped in, struck. The tip of my blade bit several inches into the big cat’s left shoulder. She barely stumbled. The wound bled for seconds only, then closed, healing before my eyes.
I struck again, near the same site. Then again. Not despairing. Her vitality was no surprise. But her wounds were not healing as fast as once they had. And that spear was worming its way deeper. And she seemed to be losing the will to fight.
The healthy Voroshk was boring in on me, coming fast, his protection turning first the fireballs rising to meet him, then the arrows and bolts. I pranced around and braced myself to flail away when he got close enough. He raised one hand as if to throw something. But before he could, my white crow appeared out of nowhere and hit him from behind. In the head. His chin slammed against his chest.
I doubt he suffered any damage but he did forget me for the moment. He flailed at the raven. The ghost bird had secured a perch on his shoulder and was trying to peck his eyes.
Even up close I could see no face. That was hidden by wraps of the same cloth enshrouding everything else.
I swung away but misjudged the Voroshk’s speed. My blade chopped into the post he was riding a foot behind his butt and tore itself from my hands. Then he hit ground. Then, howling, he bounced into the air and streaked away in a lazy curve that tended northward, all the while spinning round and round the axis of his flying post. His robes or cape or whatever billowed all over the sky. Tatters tore loose and fluttered down.
The forvalaka continued to weaken. Cautiously, some men left cover and surrounded the beast. Lady and Doj joined me within striking distance. Each carried one of the debilitating fetishes Tobo had created using the tail and bits of skin Bowalk had left behind when she killed One-Eye. Lady had shown him what to do. The fetishes were particularly effective because Lady and Tobo had had Lisa Daele Bowalk’s true name to work with.
I said, “Swan, take a squad to check out the one that’s burning over there. Be careful. Murgen, keep an eye on the other two.” The Voroshk who had streaked off rolling was under control again and headed our way at a crawl, gaining altitude, moving toward the Voroshk who remained airborne and still rising slowly. That one had begun drifting with the breeze and showing some evidence of actual flames.
I asked my darling, “Darling, is there any chance you’re keeping an eye on Goblin?” Our mysteriously resurrected brother had remained extremely quiet during the exchange of greetings between the Voroshk family and the Black Company. Unless I had missed something while I was preoccupied.
“There are two guaranteed-good bamboo poles aimed at him right now.”
“Excellent. You are going to be able to make more of those things once we get back home, aren’t you? They’re the best weapons we’ve ever had.”
“I’ll make some. If there’s time. Once my sister knows we’re back we’re going to get extremely busy.”
Egg-yolk light suddenly drenched the world. It faded before I looked up and saw a thousand-armed starfish of a cloud blossoming where the smoldering Voroshk sorcerer had been drifting.
The other Voroshk was headed north again, this time end over end. And someone was falling directly toward us, vast expanses of black cloth fluttering behind, smoke boiling off that. There was no sign of the log the Voroshk had been riding. Its fall seemed terribly slow.
Meantime, undistracted from his task, Willow Swan was bellowing across the slope. He wanted a stretcher.
Lady observed, “That one is still alive.”
“We have a hostage. Somebody poke that thing with a pike. It’s probably playing possum.” The forvalaka had stopped struggling. It lay on its back, tilted slightly to one side, both hands grasping the shaft of One-Eye’s spear.
“Hands,” Murgen said as Thai Dei prodded the monster with one of the longer fireball projectors.
“Hands,” I said, too. The change was coming over her. The change she had longed for ever since we had murdered her lover-master Shapeshifter, way back during our first assault on Dejagore.
Lady said, “She’s dying.” She sounded both puzzled and a little disappointed.
Then Start the Fire
Arising shriek rushed us from above. The falling, flailing Voroshk smashed through the leaf roof of a shelter. The shrieking stopped. Bits of roof flew upward. I said, “Murgen, go check that out.”
When I looked back to the forvalaka, I discovered that Goblin had joined us. He pushed through the crowd and stood over the monster, staring down. She was about halfway changed, her arms and legs having become a badly scarred, naked woman. She was aware enough to recognize Goblin.
The frog-faced little man said, “We tried to help you and you wouldn’t let us. We could’ve saved you but you turned on us. So now you pay. You mess with the Company, you pay.” He started to reach for One-Eye’s spear.
Men jumped every which way. Half a dozen bamboo poles swung toward Goblin. Crossbows came off shoulders.
The little wizard’s mouth opened and closed several times. Then his hand slowly withdrew.
I guess news of One-Eye’s dying words had gotten around.
Goblin squeaked, “Maybe you shouldn’t have rescued me.”
Lady told him, “We didn’t,” but did not expand upon her remark. She drew me away. “He has something to do with Bowalk dying so easily.”
I glanced over there. “She isn’t dead yet.”
“She should have been much tougher.”
“Even considering the fetishes and One-Eye’s spear?”
She thought about that. “Maybe. When she’s done dying you’d better make sure that thing is hard to reach. I don’t like the look in Goblin’s eye when he stares at it.”
That look was there now, though the little wizard showed no inclination to do anything certain to inspire a swift and violent response.
Swan and his gang were approaching, four of the men at the corners of a makeshift litter. Trotting ahead, Swan puffed, “Wait’ll you get a look at this, Croaker. You ain’t going to believe it.”
At the same moment Murgen called for another stretcher. So the other Voroshk had survived, too.
Swan was on the mark. The girl on the stretcher was impossible to believe. Maybe sixteen, blonde, as gorgeous as every boy’s fantasy. I asked my wife, “Darling, is this for real?” And to Swan, “Good job, Willow.” He had bound and gagged the girl so as to disarm most of a sorcerer’s simpler tricks.
Lady said, “You men get back.” There was not much left of what the girl had been wearing. And more than a few of the guys were the sort who would count her fair game for having tried to attack us. Some were the sort who would dish out the same treatment to a male captive. They might be my brethren but that did not make them less cruel men.
Lady told Swan, “Take Doj back over there and collect anything you can find that belonged to her. Her clothing and that thing she was riding in particular.” And to me she said, “Yes, dear, she’s the real thing. Except for just a touch of makeup. I hate her already. Goblin! You come over here and stand where I can see you.”
I stared down at the Voroshk girl, not focusing on the lushness and freshness of her but on the blondness and whiteness. I have read all the Annals, all the way back to the first volume—albeit, admittedly, a several-generations-removed-from-original copy—that had been begun before our forebrethren ever left Khatovar. Those men had not been tall and white and blond. Could the Voroshk be another out-world scourge like the Shadowmasters of my own world and Hsien?
At that moment Lady removed her helmet, the better to menace me for staring. And I realized she was quite white herself, even if not blonde.
Why expect the peoples of Khatovar to be any more homogeneous than the peoples of my own world?
Murgen and his crew came jogging up, carrying another body on another crude litter. The first had escaped most of the effects of impact and fire. This one had been less fortunate.
“Another girl,” I observed. That fact was hard to ignore. She was more obvious than the first.
“Younger than the other one.”
“But just as well put together.”
“Better, from where I’m standing.”
“They’re sisters,” Lady growled. “You have an idea what this means?”
“Probably that the Voroshk had so little respect for us that they sent out some kids so they could get in some practice. But after what’s happened, Daddy and Grandpa will take a closer interest.” I beckoned. “Gather round, gentlemen.” Once everyone not doing something closed in, I said, “In a short time we’re probably going to have a sky full of unfriendly company. I want you to start pulling up stakes and getting the animals and equipment back through the gate. Right now.”
Lady asked, “You think that third one will make it back to the Voroshk army?”
“No way will I bet against it. My mother’s optimistic children have all been dead for fifty years.” I glanced at the forvalaka. It was almost entirely Lisa Bowalk now. Except for the head. “Looks like some mythological beast, don’t she?”
She was not dead yet. Her eyes were open. They were no longer cat’s eyes. They begged. She did not want to die.
I told Lady, “She doesn’t look any older than the last time I saw her.” She was still a young and attractive woman—for one whose formative years had been spent surviving the worst slum of a truly ugly city. “Hey, Cratch. Grab Slobo. I want you guys to bring all the firewood over here and pile it on this thing.”
Goblin said, “I’ll help.”
“I’ll tell you what, runt. You want a job, you can build me a couple of good litters so we can take our new girlfriends with us.”
Lady asked, “Are they fit to travel?”
“The older one could probably get up and limp along on her own if she was conscious. I’ll need a closer look here before I can tell how bad this one’s hurt, though.”
“You watch what you’re poking and squeezing, old man.”
“You’d think that, at your age, you’d have developed a little better sense of humor, old woman. Don’t you understand that every profession has its perks? A surgeon gets to poke and squeeze.”
“So does a wife.”
“I knew I forgot something when we did that ceremony thing. Shoulda brung a lawyer. Cratch! Nobody touches that spear till we start the fire. And I’ll do any touching that gets done. Where are my birds? I’ve got to get the Black Hounds called in.” We could not leave them here. They were going to be critical weapons in the war with Soulcatcher. Sleepy was, probably, missing them desperately already.
Swan and three others approached, straining to carry the post the older girl had ridden. Swan puffed. “This goddamned thing weighs a ton!” The four of them started to drop it.
“No!” Lady barked. “Gently! You recall what happened to the other one? Up there?” She pointed. Smoke or dust or whatever still smeared the sky. There was still an occasional crackle of toy lightning inside the cloud, too. “That’s better. Goblin! Doj! Come and take a look at this thing.”
“Check this cloth,” Swan said, offering me a bit of black rag.
It felt like silk and seemed almost weightless. It stretched when I pulled it without tearing or getting any thinner. Or so it seemed.
“Now watch this.” Swan stabbed the cloth with his knife. The knife did not penetrate. It did not cut when he slashed, either.
I said, “Now isn’t that a handy little trick? We’re lucky we had the bamboo. Honey, check this out. Show her, Swan. You, men. Get the post thing on the other side of the gate. Let’s get moving, people! These folks can fly. And the next bunch that shows up aren’t likely to be as friendly.” No one really needed my encouragement, though. A solid line of men, animals and equipment was moving upslope already. The older Voroshk girl was headed uphill already, too, bound to Goblin’s first litter.
When Swan finished showing that cloth to Lady, I told him, “See if you can’t find a log or post in one of the huts that might look like that flying thing from a distance.”
Lady, Goblin and Swan all stared at me. This time I stood on my command right and did not explain. I had a hunch the Voroshk would not want to lose the post. Which my comrades might understand but if I said so they would just ask for further explanations.
I said, “This one has broken bones, bad burns, punctures, cuts and abrasions and probably internal injuries.”
“And?” Lady asked.
“And so I think she won’t be much use to us. Probably die on us. So I’m going to do the best I can for her, then leave her for her own people.”
“Going soft in your old age?”
“Like I said, she’d be more trouble than she’s worth. Plus, the sister ought to be up and around in no time. So if I do right by the one I leave here, the Voroshk might be less inclined to run around behind us trying to get vicious.”
“What’re they going to do?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to find out. I just take into account the fact that they were able to get Bowalk onto the plain and off again, once each way, without wrecking any shadowgates. I’m hoping they don’t have what it takes to move an army the same way.”
“They wouldn’t need to grab us if they did. Odds are, Bowalk’s trip was possible because of what she was and the fact that she’d bulled through it all once before.”
I looked at the forvalaka. Even its head was Lisa Daele Bowalk now. The same Lisa Bowalk who ruined Marron Shed a thousand subjective years ago. Her eyes were shut but she was still breathing.
We would have to fix that.
Lady told me, “Cut off her head first. Then start the fire.”
The Opened Gate
The Voroshk were not sneaks. They came out of the northwest in an angry swarm, eager to get at us. There were at least twenty-five in the first wave.
My people were all on the uphill side of the shadowgate but many of the Unknown Shadows had not made it back. I had left snail shells scattered around the woods so they would have somewhere to hide. I would get them out later, once the excitement was over.
The swarm streaked in, vast flutters of black cloth billowing. Even though they could see that we were beyond the shadowgate and our main body was already on the plain they dropped down and streaked over our empty camp, shedding a rain of small objects which turned little patches of ground into puddles of lava and caused vegetation to combust almost explosively. None of our shelters or corrals survived. But nothing touched the injured girl or the forvalaka’s funeral pyre.
“Glad I don’t have to run between those raindrops,” I said. A couple of the Voroshk had tried to award me that experience but the barrier between Khatovar and the plain repelled their missiles easily. And ate their magic right up. They did not activate, even when they dribbled to the ground.
Lady said, “They’re all kids, too.”
The members of the swarm all seemed to do whatever they wanted, going their own ways, yet none of them collided. Once their assault failed to produce results most of them settled to earth around the injured girl.
On my side of the shadowgate we leaned on bamboo poles and watched.
A trio of latecomers formed the second wave. They appeared several minutes after the first flood. “These will be the leaders,” Lady said. “Being a little more cautious than the youngsters.” Even more black fabric billowed around these three.
“The highest ranking members of the Family making the journey,” I conceded. “There sure are a lot of these people. Considering the size of the army they brought.” Not counting the Voroshk themselves, my spies numbered the approaching force at about eight hundred. The light cavalry hurrying ahead numbered fewer than fifty men. There was a good chance we could have beat them up if they had not had all those post riders in the sky looking out for them.
When they grounded, the Voroshk flyers did stand their conveyances on end, like fenceposts that would not tip over without a push from a human hand.
The elders circled a few times before they set down. Then they took time to examine the unconscious child before paying any more attention to us.
I gave a small hand signal as soon as we were on. Men on the slope who had been hanging around gawking resumed moving. The Voroshk chieftains were allowed to see the other girl being led away and what looked like four men lugging a captured flying fencepost. While the heart of my heart and I posed just behind the gate in our best killer costumes. I know there was a huge smirk hanging around inside my helmet.
Out there among the Voroshk, so far ignored but not unnoticed, the headless corpse of our ancient enemy crackled and popped inside a roaring fire. I wished we still had the Lance of Passion to show those guys, too. My ravens had not been able to tell if the Voroshk were aware of who we really were.
I said, “The past always comes back.” I waved. Then I told Lady, “I think it might be a real good idea if we got going now. Their good feelings about us having taken care of that kid just aren’t going to last.”
“You’ve probably stretched it too long already, showing off.” She started up the slope. She did not look at all bad in that armor. She set a brisk pace for such an old gal, too.
Soon all the flying sorcerers were staring uphill, pointing and jabbering at one another. They seemed to be much more excited about us carrying off their flying log than they were about us taking the girl. Maybe she was not anyone important. Or maybe they figured she was old enough to look out for herself.
One of the elders stepped away from that fluttering black crowd. He had a small book in his hand. He turned a couple of pages, found the one he wanted, ran a finger along a few lines as he read. A second elder nodded and apparently repeated what he had to say, with gestured accompaniment. After a moment the third elder took it up, his gestures similar but not in step with those of the other two.
“It’s a round,” I told Lady. We had overtaken the slowest of our people. “Row row row.” I made some gestures myself. “You do anything you’re going to be sorry.”
The Voroshk all spun, presenting their backs to us.
The flash was so bright it blinded me for a moment. When my sight returned another of those hundred-legged starfish of brownish-grey smoke had materialized. This one was not upstairs. This one was right where the shadowgate had been. Centered right where I had hidden the captured flying post under some “abandoned” tenting.
“Warned you,” I murmured.
“How did you know?” Lady asked.
“I’m not sure. A hunch, I guess. Uninhibited intuition.”
“They’ve just killed themselves.” There was almost a hint of compassion in her voice. “They’ll never stop the shadows from flooding through that.”
Some of the Voroshk already recognized the magnitude of the disaster still unfolding. Black fluttering shapes scattered like roaches suddenly exposed to the light. Flying posts took to the air, streaked northward so violently that bits of black cloth ripped off and fluttered down like dark autumn leaves.
The three elders held their positions. They stared our way. I wondered what was happening inside their heads. Almost certainly not any recognition of the fact that the disaster was a direct result of the magnitude of Voroshk arrogance. I have never met one of their kind who would admit any fallibility whatsoever.
I was sure there would be some grand squabbles over where to fix the blame during the time they had left. Human nature at work.
“What are you thinking?” Lady asked.
I realized that I was no longer moving, that I was just watching the Voroshk watch me. “Just looking around inside me, trying to figure out why this doesn’t bother me the way it would have years ago. Why I recognize the pain more easily now but am not touched by it nearly so much.”
“You know what One-Eye used to say about you? You think too much. He was right. You don’t have any more obligation to him. Let’s go back to our own world, see about spanking our little girl and getting my baby sister straightened up.” Her voice changed severely as her thoughts turned. “One thing I demand. Still. Narayan Singh. I want him. He’s mine.”
I winced inside my helmet. Poor Narayan. I said, “I still have one thing to do here.”
“What?” she snapped.
“After those three leave. I have to get Tobo’s friends back.”
She grunted and resumed walking. She had to make sure the road across the plain could be closed behind us, so that we would not become victims of the explosion, too.
The Protector of All the Taglias
Soulcatcher’s survival instincts had been honed to a razor’s edge by centuries of adventures among peoples who considered her continued good health a liability. She sensed a change in the world long before she had any idea what that change might be, good or ill or indifferent, and ages before she dared hazard a guess as to its cause.
At first it was just that sense. Then, gradually, it became the pressure of a thousand eyes. But she could discover nothing. Her crows could find nothing either, other than the occasional, unpredictable, flickering glimpse of their quarry, the two Deceivers. That was ancient news.
Soulcatcher abandoned the hunt immediately. It would not be difficult to get close to the Deceivers again.
She learned nothing more before nightfall—except that her crows were extremely unsettled, getting more and more nervous, less and less tractable and increasingly inclined to jump at shadows. They could not make clear the nature of their malaise because they did not understand it themselves.
That began to grow clearer as the twilight gathered. Messengers interrupted Soulcatcher’s meditations to inform her that several of the murder had fallen prey to a sudden illness. “Show me.”
She made no effort to disguise herself as she followed her birds to the nearest feathered corpse. She picked it up, rolled it carefully in her gloved hands.
It was obvious what had killed the crow. Not illness but a killer shadow. No cadaver looked like one did after a shadow finished with it. But that could not be. It was still light out. Her tame shadows were all in hiding and there were no rogue shadows around anymore. Nor would wild shadows have wasted themselves on a crow when there was human game in the vicinity. She should have heard Narayan Singh and that wretched niece of hers screaming long before any crow... There had been no sound from the bird whatsoever. Nor had there been from any of a half dozen others the murder knew to be gone. The survivors had plenty to say. Including stating plainly that they were not about to stray away from her protection.
“How can I fight this if I don’t know what it is? If you won’t find out for me?”
The crows would not be bullied or cajoled. They were geniuses for birds. Which meant they were just bright enough to have noticed that every one of the dead had been completely alone when evil had befallen them.
Soulcatcher cursed them, then calmed herself and convinced the most valiant birds that they had to, therefore, do their scouting in threes and fours until darkness closed in completely. At that point she would have bats and owls and her own shadows available to take over.
Darkness came. As the Deceivers correctly observe, the darkness always comes.
With nightfall came a silent but horribly vicious warfare with Soulcatcher poised at the eye of the storm.
Initially she had to hold on desperately against unknown assailants until her own shadows could bring in enough swift reinforcements. Then, spending shadows profligately, she took the offensive. And when dawn came, and she was almost without supernatural allies because of the cost of the struggle, she gave way to exhaustion, having gained a knowledge of a portion of the truth.
They were back. The Black Company were, with new formations, new allies, new sorceries, and still without a dram of mercy in their hearts. These were not the Company she had known in younger years but they were the spiritual children of the cold killers of the olden days. No matter what you tried, it seemed, you could kill only men. The ideal lived on.
Ha! An end to the boredom of empire stood at hand.
Bravado and pretense did not lessen the inexplicable fear. They had fled onto the plain. And now they were back. That had to mean much more. She needed to interrogate shadows who had existed on the glittering stone during those silent years. When there was time. Before she did anything else she had to do what she always did so well: survive.
She was out here hundreds of miles from any support. She was besieged by things that would not yield to her will or sorcery and which she could detect, it seemed, only through her own shadows or when one of them attacked her directly. They were as fierce as shadows but strange. They were more otherworldly than her spirit slaves and seemed possessed of a higher order of intelligence.
Each one she extinguished personally infected her with both a vast sorrow and with the certainty that she was battling only the most feeble of their kind. Always there was a powerful presentiment of demons or demigods to come.
What she could not comprehend was why all this frightened her so. There was nothing here more deadly or threatening or bizarre than a thousand perils she had faced before. Nothing here matched the sheer dark menace of the Dominator in his time.
There were infrequent moments when she still longed for those dark and ancient times. The Dominator had taken her and all her sisters, had made one of them his wife and another his lover...
He had been a strong, hard, cruel man, the Dominator. His empire had been one of cruelty and steel. And Soulcatcher had revelled in its pomp and dark glory. And would never forgive her rival, her last surviving sister, for having brought all that to an end. Blame the death of the Dominator on the White Rose if you wanted. Soulcatcher knew the truth. The Dominator never would have gone down if his whining virgin of a wife had not helped his destruction along.
And who had fought and conspired so hard after their resurrection to keep the Dominator in the ground? His loving wife, that was who!
She would be back. She would be out there somewhere, wherever the Black Company had been hiding. She was not here yet but she would be soon. Having been buried alive again would be no impediment to the inevitable, that grim moment when they would settle their differences face-to-face.
Soulcatcher could will herself blind in some quarters, despite centuries of cynical experience. She would not see that fortune could be just as erratic and insane as she was.
Soulcatcher’s powers of recuperation were tremendous. After a few hours of rest she rose and started walking northward, her stride long and confident. Tonight she would gather an army of her own shadows around her. Never again would she be as threatened as she had been the night before.
So she told herself.
By late afternoon her confidence was as high as ever it had been and fragments of her mind were already peeping past today’s crisis to scout out what might be done to sculpt the future.
Soulcatcher had long been intimate with the knowledge that horrible things could and did happen to her but always she had enjoyed the certainty that she would come through everything alive.
“Looks clean,” Swan said. Murgen and Thai Dei grunted agreement. I nodded to the Nyueng Bao. What he had to say meant something here. His eyes were still as sharp as those of a lad of fifteen. I was damned near blind in one and could not see out the other.
“Doj? What do you think? Did they run away? Or did they sneak back just in case we sneaked back?” Element of surprise no longer my ally, I did not want to run into the Voroshk again. Especially not those old men. They would be bitter and in a mood to drag me down to hell with them.
“They went away. They went back to prepare for the onslaught. They know horror and despair are headed their way but they also know they’re strong enough to weather it if they remain calm and work hard.”
I suspect I gaped. “How do you figure all that?”
“It’s just a matter of mental exercise. Take what we know about them, about sorcerers as a whole, and about human beings in general, and the rest follows. They’ve been through this before, in a smaller way. They’ll have worked out what to do if it happened again. All this empty country, from here to the other side of their Dandha Presh, will serve the same function as the cleared ground surrounding a fortress expecting to be besieged.”
“You’ve convinced me. Let’s just hope they’re not so ready that they figure out how to come looking for us after they wrap up their pest problem.” As badly as the shadowgate and nearby barrier had been damaged I doubted the Voroshk would have much energy to spare for generations.
Swan said, “He had me for a minute, too, but here comes the argument that proves what I always knew: Uncle Doj is full of shit.”
A half dozen billowing black forms had emerged from the vegetation down the slope. They were walking very slowly, two by two, hands extended away from their sides, their flying posts tagging along behind at waist height.
I said, “I don’t know what the fuck is going on but I want Goblin and Doj ready for anything. Murgen, you and Thai Dei spread out so we can hit them from in front and both sides with fireballs.” Me and my pals had three live poles, literally all our band had left. Lady said there were just six usable fireballs between the three. She hoped.
One for each of the Voroshk.
Swan said, “You sure we really need to round up those spooks? Life would be a lot easier...”
“Right here. Right now. But what happens back home when we’ve got Soulcatcher coming at us and we yell for Tobo to let loose the Black Hounds and there ain’t no Black Hounds? And the rest of the Unknown Shadows say, ‘Fuck that shit! I ain’t getting skragged for these guys who wouldn’t even try to bring the Hounds out of Khatovar.’”
Swan growled. Goblin sneered, “A little passion, Captain? I thought you’d lost it all.”
“When I want shit out of you, runt, I’ll kick it out. What did he just say?” The Voroshk had stopped coming toward us. One had spoken. And, O wonder, his words sounded like something I ought to understand. “Say that again, buddy.”
The sorcerer got the idea. He repeated himself, loudly and slowly, the way you do with the hard of hearing, the dim of wit and foreigners.
“What is that noise?” I asked. “I know there were words in there that I should recognize.”
“Remember Juniper?” Goblin said. “It sounds like he’s trying to speak what they spoke there.”
“Makes sense. Bowalk came from Juniper. So listen close.” Goblin had served in Juniper, too. A long time ago. I have a knack for languages. Could I get enough of this one back fast enough to do us any good? We did not have many hours of daylight left.
Something began to get past the fact that the Voroshk had a horrible accent and his grammar was atrocious. He butchered tenses and inverted his verbs and subjects.
Goblin and I compared notes as we proceeded. The little wizard had never spoken the language well but he had had no trouble understanding it.
“What’s going on?” Swan demanded. He was holding one of the bamboo poles. It was getting heavy.
“Sounds like they want us to take them with us. That they think the end of the world is coming and they don’t want to participate.”
Goblin nodded, agreeing. He added a caveat, “But I wouldn’t trust them for a second. I’d always assume they were sent to spy on us.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’d do that with just about anybody.”
Goblin ignored the jibe. “Make them strip. Bone naked. Doj I and I can go over their clothes like we’re looking for nits.”
“All right. Only I’m taking Doj with me to help collect my snail shells.” I began telling the Voroshk what they had to do if they really wanted to go with us. They were not pleased. They wanted to argue. I did not argue even though I hoped to get my hands on a flying post or two so Lady and Tobo could study them. Damn, having a few of those sure would be handy.
I told the Voroshk, “If I don’t see naked bodies I’d better see the backs of people getting away. Anybody who isn’t doing one or the other by a count of fifty will die where he’s standing on his dignity.” The language came back to me quite well, though I did not really make my statement that clearly. The two Voroshk who were probably the brightest began disrobing almost immediately. They proved to be as pale and blond as the girls we had seen already, though red with embarrassment and shaking with fury. I watched carefully, not with much interest in their flesh. How much determination they put into something humiliating would give me a hint or two about their sincerity.
It was too much for one young woman. She got just far enough for her true sex to become evident before she found that she could not finish.
“Better run, girl,” I said. And she did. She hopped aboard her flying log and scooted.
Her desertion had a definite impact on one of the young men. He changed his mind even though he was already naked. I did not hurry him as he dressed.
That left four, three boys and a girl, all in their early to middle-teens.
I waved uphill, confident that by now Lady would be watching and could guess what I needed. She is clever that way. And shortly a couple of guys were headed downhill lugging bundles of odds and ends with which to dress our prisoners.
They did not yet quite understand their new status. I brought them through the shadowgate one at a time, watching carefully. I did not expect them to try anything but I am alive at my age because I make a habit of being ready for trouble when it seems most unlikely. I asked, “Anybody got any reason to think whoever goes out the gate is going to get into trouble?” To their further humiliation the Voroshk kids found themselves with their hands bound behind them as soon as they were dressed.
The fellow with the feeble command of Juniper’s lingo protested the indignity. “It’s only temporary,” I assured him. “Just while us few are on the outside.” I shifted to Taglian. “Murgen, Swan, Thai Dei, you keep these guys on a short leash.”
Bamboo poles lashed the air. Despite age and its attendant cynicism, those guys could put on a show of enthusiasm. Mainly faked. Swan promised me, “Anything happens to you, there won’t be anything left of them but grease stains and toenails.”
“You’re a good man, Swan. Doj, you go through first.” The elderly Nyueng Bao drew the sword Ash Wand and stepped through the damaged shadowgate into Khatovar. He positioned himself. I said, “Your turn, Goblin.” By hand sign I told Murgen not to be shy about flinging a fireball at surprise targets outside.
What followed was anticlimactic. I took a sack around to all the places I remembered seeding earlier and collected snail shells. Those in which something had hidden itself had a distinct feel.
My ravens returned while I was involved in the harvest. They reported the Voroshk feverishly preparing for nightfall. They believed our defectors were genuine. Terror and panic were spreading across the world as fast as Voroshk messengers could fly.
The birds made the recovery of our shadow companions much easier. They let me know which shells were a waste of time and where to find the ones I had forgotten. We were all back through the shadowgate an hour before sunset.
Goblin was still examining the clothing removed from the Voroshk kids. The little wizard piped. “This is some truly amazing material, Croaker. I think it might be sensitive to the thoughts of whoever is wearing it.”
“Is it safe?”
“I think it’s completely inert as long as it isn’t in contact with whoever is keyed to wear it.”
“A little something more for Tobo to play with during all the spare time he’s going to have in the middle of a war. Bundle it up. Put it on a mule at the front of the column. We need to get going.” I shifted languages, told the unhappy youngsters, “I’m releasing you now. I’m going to bring you back out here, one at a time, so you can get your posts. You won’t be allowed to ride them. You’ll travel at the rear of our column.” I went on to tell them about the dangers of the plain while they were following instructions. Their fear of the shadows gave me a good chance to retain their attention. I tried to impress them that a screw-up on the plain would kill not just the fuck-up but the whole crew, so they should not expect my people to be gentle if their behavior was unacceptable.
I was the last of the Company to leave Khatovar’s soil. Before I departed I indulged in a little personal ceremony of farewell, or perhaps of exorcism.
The youngster capable of some communication wanted to know, “What is the meaning of what you just did?”
I tried to explain. He did not get it. In time I determined that he had never heard of the Free Companies of Khatovar. That he knew almost nothing of the history of his world before his ancestors had taken power. That, furthermore, he did not care.
He seemed a shallow young man, overall. No doubt his companions were much the same.
The Company was going to be a revelation for them.
Lady and I stayed at the end of the road, waiting to make sure we had sealed it successfully against shadow incursions. The sun set. The sense of presence that comes when a large number of killer shadows are gathering grew powerful as darkness came. A rising excitement informed that presence, as though the Host of the Unforgiven Dead knew that some change had taken place even though they could not come out and scout around in the daytime.
The skies remained clear over Khatovar. The moon rose just before sunset, so there was ample silvery light to reveal the opening stage of the shadow invasion. A trickle of small explorers gradually slithered through the shattered boundary. The scream of a dying pig reached us. More shadows descended the slope. Though they did not appear to be communicating with one another, somehow more and more and bigger and bigger shadows became aware of the opportunity.
“Look there,” Lady said. A line of Voroshk flyers had begun passing near the moon. Before long little balls of light were bubbling into existence within the dense vegetation down the slope. “Maybe something like our fireballs.”
The fireballs had been created, originally, to destroy the floods of darkness the Shadowmasters insisted on throwing against us.
“They’re going to put up a fight, anyway. Will you look at that?” That being the Nef.
“The dreamwalkers are going out? I wonder why.”
“Too bad we couldn’t let the shadows all get out, then slam the gate shut behind them.”
Even Shivetya would agree, I supposed. He was not pleased with some of the improvements made on his plain during recent millennia.
Lady said, “We should get moving. And you might want to put some thought into what to do with our new children once we get to the other end and they become tempted to run away.”
Yes. I should. We did not need any more psychotic sorcerers getting under foot.
Tobo finished interviewing the black raven that was not really a bird, sent it racing back to Croaker. He found his mother and Sleepy with Sleepy’s usual fellow travelers studying a map of the territories north of the Dandha Presh. They were trying to determine the most favorable route northward, once the force finished crossing the mountains. Little colored patches represented the last known positions of the Protector and of Narayan Singh.
Sleepy asked, “News from Croaker?”
“He’s finished it. He’s on his way. But it turned stranger than he expected.” He relayed the full report.
Sleepy told him, “You’ll have to go back. We can’t risk the chance of another gang of sorcerers getting loose over here.”
“I suppose.” Tobo had no enthusiasm for that. “I don’t like it. Why didn’t he just kill them after he had their flying things and that remarkable clothing?”
“Because he doesn’t do things like that.” Not to mention the fact that dead people are not real cooperative when it comes time for them to share their knowledge.
“No. He lets people get away with stuff, then hunts them down thirty years later.” She made a growling noise. “How can I keep moving if I don’t have you here?”
“If Croaker is on this side all the Unknown Shadows will be on this side, too. The Black Hounds will be running out front in no time. A day or two later we’ll be able to see what’s going on anywhere we want to look.” Sleepy needed that reassurance. She was worried about everything going on out where she had no ability to see. Reminding her that most people, including most captains, went through whole lives far more blind than she had ever been, did nothing to improve her temper.
Sleepy was spoiled. Throughout her association with the Company, one way or another, we had owned some ability to find out what was happening far away from us. You let anybody have something for a little while, they soon consider it their birthright. Sleepy was very much no exception to that rule.
Goblin crabbed, “I understand that you need Tobo here before you can let the prisoners leave the plain. But why shouldn’t the rest of us go ahead? We aren’t getting anything useful done just sitting here.”
“You’re getting done what I want you to get done. Now be quiet. Before I gag you.”
I became impatient myself before Tobo finally appeared. He was subject to the constraints of normal travel. We had no flying carpets anymore, though there was hope that the Howler might create some once he was reawakened. (Nobody had yet tried.) And now there was the possibility we might gain the secrets of the Voroshk flying posts.
Tobo came in astride the superhorse that had attached itself to Sleepy. Bred originally to serve the Lady of the Tower up north, a number had come south with the Company. This was the last known survivor.
“How long do those things live, hon?” I asked Lady as Tobo approached.
“Maybe forty years. At the extreme. This one is pushing the limit.”
“Looks pretty spry.” Despite having run forty miles the animal looked almost fresh.
“I did good work in those days.”
“And you miss them now?”
“Yes.” She would not lie to me. She did not love me any less for missing being what once she had been, either. Near as I can tell, she never regrets anything she does, good or evil. I wish I could be that way.
Tobo dismounted right outside the shadowgate. I passed him through. He got straight to business, though he smiled and waved to his father and uncle and Doj. “You have five prisoners? All major wizards?”
“I don’t know about that. They could be complete no-talents, far as I can tell. But they did go flying around on fenceposts wearing a kind of super-fabric that Goblin says can be manipulated by thoughts. This comes across as a ‘You’d better be careful, Croaker’ kind of sign.”
“We can communicate with them?”
“We have two brothers whose father studied and managed Bowalk while she was in Khatovar. The father could force Bowalk to resume human shape for an hour or two sometimes, but he couldn’t keep her there. He thought the problem was a deadman-loop Shapeshifter built into the shape-changing spells. Shifter didn’t trust her. The loop activated when One-Eye killed him.”
“Anyway, this Voroshk’s kids picked up some of Bowalk’s native tongue from being around her, which has been for all of their lives. When the Voroshk blew up the shadowgate one of them got the bright idea that he could talk us into taking them to safety somewhere else. He rounded up some friends who were just as scared and came to us. He assumed we all spoke the same language as the forvalaka. He had some strange notion that we would recognize the innate superiority of the Voroshk and take his bunch in as honored guests. He couldn’t imagine it being any other way because that’s the only way it could be in Khatovar. He’s vain, stupid and arrogant. They all seem to be. The other brother more so. He won’t even talk.”
Tobo smiled a little unpleasantly, perhaps recalling similar attitudes amongst Hsien’s warlords. “I expect they’ve all suffered one disappointment after another.”
“Absodamnlutely. Life has become an unimaginable hell for these kids. I have to remind them over and over that they’re still alive.”
“Let’s go meet them, shall we?” The kid looked like he was excited by the challenge.
As we approached the refugees I warned Tobo, “They’re all gorgeous but I really don’t think they have a brain between them. At least they show every sign of being slow learners.”
We stopped several yards from Khatovar’s forlorn children. They huddled together beside the road as Black Company men and mules began to move out through the shadowgate. Only one of the girls had ambition enough to look up. The little one. The one we had taken prisoner.
She stared at Tobo for half a minute. Then she murmured something to her companions. They looked up, too. Only the ringleader and his brother betrayed their native arrogance. And it had not been that long or arduous a journey.
They seemed to sense something in Tobo that was not apparent to me. It awakened hope. Several babbled questions in their own language.
“When they stop yammering tell them who I am. Don’t feel like you have to be entirely honest, either.”
“A little exaggeration couldn’t hurt?”
The interview lasted longer than I anticipated. Tobo was remarkably patient for his age. He worked hard to make the Voroshk understand that they were no longer in the land of their fathers, that here it did not matter who they were or who their parents had been. In our world they were going to have to sing for their supper.
We broke for a snack. The Voroshk and their guards were the only people left on the plain side of the shadowgate. I told Tobo, “I admire your patience.”
“Me, too. Already I want to kick some of them. And it’s not really all patience, anyway. I’m trying to learn more about them by reading what they don’t say and what they do let slip. You’re right. They don’t seem very bright. Though I’m guessing that’s as much because of the way they were educated as it is any natural stupidity. They have no idea whatsoever of their own past. None! Never heard of the Free Companies. Never heard of the Lance of Passion. Didn’t know that some really great wizards from Khatovar erected the standing stones that are all over the plain, at great peril to themselves from shadows. Didn’t even recognize the name Khatovar, though they do know Khadi as some vague, old-time demon that nobody cares about anymore.”
“How do you know that? About the memorial stones.”
“Baladitya got it from Shivetya. You did notice that the runes on the flying logs are almost identical to the ones on the standing stones?”
“I didn’t notice that, no. Mostly I’ve kept busy watching Goblin. The little shit speaks a bit of the language. He’s been sneaking around talking to them.”
Tobo chewed and nodded and looked thoughtful. “You ask him about it?”
“Hardly. I don’t trust that guy, Tobo. One-Eye told me not to just before he passed.”
“Nobody is going to trust Goblin for a long time, Croaker. And he knows that as well as anybody else does. He’ll be the carefulest Goblin you ever saw. You won’t even recognize him.”
“We’re talking about Goblin here. He can’t help himself.”
“He got into most of what he got into because One-Eye dragged him along. Think about it, Croaker. If he’s somehow turned into Kina’s tool, his assignment will be a long-term one. ‘Bring on the Year of the Skulls’ kind of stuff. He won’t get himself killed trying something trivial.”
I grunted. That made perfect sense on a rational level but I remained unconvinced. Goblin was Goblin. I had known him for a long time. The things he did did not always make sense, even to him. I asked, “What’ll we do with the Voroshk?”
“I’m going to educate them.”
Damn! I did not like the way he said that.
He replaced my guards with his own cronies, Taglians led by a senior sergeant called Riverwalker. All these guards were fluent in the language of Hsien and possessed a working knowledge of Nyueng Bao, which was a close cousin of the language spoken in the Land of Unknown Shadows.
Tobo instructed the guards, then the prisoners. Through me. Explaining the facts of life. “These men will be your teachers. They will teach you languages and the skills you will need to get along in this world. They will expose you to our religions and laws and the ways we have for getting along with one another.”
The boy doing the translating started to protest.
Riverwalker smacked him in the back of the head hard enough to knock him down.
Tobo continued, “You have to understand that you’re guests. You bought passage out of Khatovar with your knowledge. Your lives will be as comfortable as we can make them so long as you cooperate. But we are at war with ancient and powerful enemies. We won’t be inclined toward patience with anyone who doesn’t cooperate. Our patience will be especially short with people we consider dangerous. Do you understand?”
Tobo waited for me to finish translating. I asked an extra time to make sure the kids really grasped the gravity of the situation. Youngsters have a hard time getting it when the cruel and deadly applies to them personally. They also tend to agree to almost anything just to stop hearing about it.
Tobo had me tell them, “The rest of today and tonight you can rest. Tomorrow you’ll begin an intensive education in Taglian. While we’re hurrying to catch up with the rest of our army. I’ll travel with you and will help you as much as I can.”
The leader boy wanted to argue again. He had not listened closely enough to what he was translating. Riverwalker knocked him down again. Tobo told me, “That one’s going to be trouble.”
“There’s a good chance they all will be. They couldn’t get along at home.” They had to be misfits. Shifting languages, I told the kids, “If you make yourselves more trouble than you’re worth these people will kill you. Come on. I think I see some chow waiting to make our acquaintance.”
One of the girls said something in her own language. The captive, not the one who had come along with the boys.
I responded to the whine. “Tell her she can’t go home. It’s too late for that.”
Meantime, Tobo remarked, “But everybody here is running away from something.”
“Some,” I stipulated. “How soon do you think we’ll get a chance to sit down somewhere? I’ve got a lot of writing to catch up on.”
Tobo laughed. “You’d better stage a coup, you want a chance to sit down. Sleepy won’t take time off until the corpses are piled high enough to make fences.”
The Voroshk seemed to enjoy their evening meal. They were hungry enough to appreciate anything. We started teaching them Taglian nouns. Tobo studied both them and the wonders they had brought with them. He seemed less impressed by their flying posts than he was by the clothing they were no longer permitted to wear.
He told me, “Those posts look like a variation on the same sorcery Howler uses to operate his flying carpets. I should be able to work it out eventually. If I can get around some spells that’re meant to make the posts destroy themselves if they fall into the wrong hands.”
I told him about the two I had seen explode.
“Pretty potent self-destruct, then. I’ll be careful.”
“Be careful of those girls, too. I think the little one’s already staked you out.”
Come morning the leader kid could not be wakened. He was alive, all right, but no one could rouse him. “What did you do?” I asked Tobo, whispering, having leapt to a conclusion involving Tobo wanting the potential troublemaker out of the way without us losing access to his post and clothing.
“I had nothing to do with it.”
Lady examined the boy after I did. She said, “This looks a lot like the coma Smoke went into for so long.”
I agreed. But Soulcatcher had been responsible for that, we believed. And there was no way this could be her doing. The Unknown Shadows knew every move she made. And would turn aside any monsters she sent against us. I wondered aloud, “Were any of your invisible friends around here last night? Maybe they saw something.”
By dint of ferocity I got the unconscious kid’s brother to admit that he could communicate. I made him understand that they needed to bind his brother onto one of their posts. Otherwise he would get left behind when we moved out.
The kids were terrified.
“Handy disaster,” Lady remarked.
“Yeah. But for whom?”
Mogaba swore softly but virulenty, foully and steadily. Crows had been arriving for over an hour, each bird carrying a fragment of a long message from the Protector. Being birdbrained, no one crow could carry much of the whole. And because they were vulnerable to a thousand misfortunes, every fragment had to be sent again and again.
The Great General hated putting these puzzles together and this one was the worst ever, by an order of magnitude. There should not be this many crows in the whole world.
He had twenty scribes working on the message already.
Some points became clear quickly.
He sent for Aridatha Singh and Ghopal Singh. This message would affect all of them.
By the time the others arrived, enough of the puzzle had come clear for Mogaba to reveal what, for him, was the most critical detail. “They’re back.”
Aridatha jumped, startled by Mogaba’s intensity. “Back? Who’s back?”
“The Black Company. The Protector destroyed them. Right? Root and branch. Right? But now she says they’re back. They’re patching her message together in the next room right now.”
Ghopal asked, “What are you talking about?”
“There’s a huge message coming in from our employer. She’s given up her quest. She’s on the run, headed home. The Black Company is pouring through the shadowgate. Thousands strong. Well-armed, well-clad, well-trained. With the Radisha Drah and Prahbrindrah Drah in their train and blessing them. And we have nothing much in their way for hundreds of miles. She’s headed back here. She expects to lose her ability to watch them shortly. They have some unfamiliar kind of supernatural help coming off the plain with them. Evidently something like the shadows but more dangerous because they’re smarter.”
Aridatha observed, “Sounds like pretty good intelligence gathering for somebody who’s on the run from an enemy who knows her capabilities.” Singh’s handsome face had lost some of its color. His voice had gone husky.
“A thought which did not escape me. She is Soulcatcher, after all. On the other hand, though, she can’t learn anything when there isn’t anything to see.”
Aridatha and Ghopal nodded. In all ways, except in their hearts, they remained dedicated servants of the Protector.
Mogaba said, “The enemy being familiar with the Protector’s capabilities means they’ll try to take them away from her. We don’t know who’s in charge but doctrine is doctrine. They’ll try to blind her first, then they’ll try to take away her capacity to communicate. They couldn’t have come at a better time for them. She’s a hundred miles from nowhere. She can’t spread the word much faster than rumors will spread. And you know the news that the Radisha and her brother are coming back will spread like the plague.”
Ghopal said, “I’ll seal this part of the Palace off, then. We don’t want those people in there running to their temples or whatever and telling too much of the truth to someone who’d use it as a tool against us.”
“Do that.” That would look good to the Protector’s invisible spies. But, on the other hand it might be very useful to have some of the news get out. Taglios might fall into a state of chaos. A state in which there would be opportunities. Chaos could be very useful. Chaos could make wonderful camouflage.
Perhaps when the Protector was nearer Taglios.
Right now it was necessary to prepare for the advent of the Company. That would be expected from all quarters.
Where did they find so many men? Or shadows of their own? What other surprise cards did they have in their hand?
Some, surely. That was their nature.
Mogaba said, “We’ve got to leak some of the news. Like it or not. We have to get ready for war. We’re headed for a fight. Unless we give up without a struggle. I don’t plan to do that myself. I couldn’t live with the consequences.”
The Singhs exchanged glances. The Great General showing a sense of humor? Remarkable.
Ghopal said, “People are afraid of the Black Company.”
“Of course they are. But when was the last time they won? We beat them over and over during the Kiaulune wars.” Mogaba was proud of his work back then. His thinking and planning had contributed to every Taglian triumph.
“But we didn’t wipe them all the way out. The trouble with the Black Company is that if you leave even one of them alive, before long they’re coming right back at you again.”
“My brother unforgiven .” That slogan haunted Mogaba’s nightmares. He had his regrets.
“How soon can we expect the Protector?” Ghopal asked. “I’ll have preparations to make.”
Mogaba said, “She was on foot when she started sending her message. But she’ll get to a courier station eventually. Then she’ll start making good time. I wouldn’t count on having more than another two or three days if she gets in a real hurry.”
Ghopal grunted unhappily.
Mogaba nodded. Nothing ever went easily.
Aridatha asked, “Did she catch the Deceivers?”
Once again Mogaba thought the man betrayed a curiously skewed interest. Possibly a personal interest. “No. I told you, she said she was breaking off the chase. Enough. We all pretty much know what we need to do. Aridatha, I want the entire courier battalion here as soon as possible. The garrison commanders will need to be advised. I’ll let you know right away if any critical news comes in.”
Watching the message continue to approach final form, the Great General reviewed his unit commanders and the readiness and reliability of their commands. He was troubled. At first glance it would seem he could call up the resources of an empire. But the Protector had not concerned herself with the upkeep of her armed forces when she was not directly and immediately threatened. And she was not remotely popular, never had been and never wanted to be. She preferred rule by raw strength.
The Prahbrindrah Drah and his sister returning was particularly troubling. They had been popular in their era and in time’s crucible had gone through the first stages of sanctification already. Some would hail them as liberators. Hell, if Croaker was still alive they might give him his old title back.
There would be desertions, both at high levels and among the soldiers. Mogaba was more concerned about the troops. The nobility and senior priests, who owed their positions to the Protector, would play it carefully. Taglios had received several painful lessons regarding the price to be paid for betraying the Protector.
Where would it be best to bring the Company to battle? And how could he force battle upon them if they were reluctant to hazard a major encounter?
He was sure that his best chance lay in forcing an early confrontation, before what forces he did have began to evaporate.
The Nether Taglian Territories:
Soulcatcher hastened along the bank of a creek that was almost as still and deep as a canal, looking for a way to cross. She had miscalculated when she had chosen to cut across these moors and downs to reach the shabby stronghold at Nijha. Clinging to the road would have meant a longer walk but there would have been bridges for times like these.
When she encountered obstacles of this sort she had no choice but to guess which way to turn. She did not know the country. She was blind. There were no bats or owls to send scouting. There were no shadows tonight. She had sent all those to safety, along with her crows. She knew she was capable of dealing with the hobgoblins following her around.
Something rose from the water behind her. It had a shape like a horse. A voice whispered in her ear, telling her to come and ride. She barely glanced at it, and then only in total scorn. These things might be smarter than shadows but they could not be by much. How stupid did they think she was? She did not have to be familiar with the folklore of Hsien to understand that the water horse would drag her under.
She ignored the monster, not knowing it was an afanc, actually of centaur shape rather than equine. A half hour later she ignored one of its cousins, which took the semblance of a giant beaver. Then there was one resembling a crocodile, though this creek was four hundred miles from anywhere warm enough to support those giant reptiles. They all whispered to her. Some of them even knew her true name.
She found a plank footbridge evidently put in place by the seldom-seen, horse-stealing natives of these highlands. As she started across, something whispered to her from underneath. She did not understand its words but their menace was plain enough.
“You don’t want me crossing, come up and do something about it.” The voice she chose was that of a small child who was severely annoyed, but not frightened.
Something came up. It was huge and dark and ugly. In spots it glowed with a leprous inner light. It had way too many teeth. They stuck out of its mouth at all angles. It would have trouble when it came time to eat.
All those teeth and fangs snapped open as the monster prepared to lunge.
Soulcatcher’s gloved right hand drifted forward. A spray of sparkling dust floated onward to meet the evil spirit.
Soulcatcher leapt off the bridge an instant before it shattered to kindling. She backed away, watched the fiend thrash and melt. From behind her mask came a soft wee sound like a little girl’s skip-rope song, with a refrain that went, “It was fun to watch you die.”
The Taglian Territories:
Somewhere North of Charandaprash
The Daughter of Night actually seemed to be thriving now that the Protector was stalking them no longer. Narayan was worried.
“You’re always worried,” she chided. She was happy. Her voice was musical. The light of the campfire made her eyes sparkle—when it did not make them glow red. “If someone is after us you worry about getting caught. If we’re safe you worry about me not being a perfect replica of this image of the Daughter of Night you’ve invented inside your head. Narayan, Narayan... Papa Narayan, what I want more than anything is somehow to fix it so you don’t have to do this anymore. You’ve been the one for so long... You deserve to put it all down now and relax.”
Narayan knew that was not possible. Never would be. He did not argue, though. “Then let’s bring on the Year of the Skulls. Once Kina returns we can loaf for the rest of our lives.”
The girl shivered, seemed puzzled. Then she shuddered violently. She grew more pale, leaving Narayan wondering how she managed that when she was always as pale as death to begin. She stared out into the night, obviously troubled.
Narayan started to dump dirt—piled there for that purpose—onto the fire.
The girl said, “It’s too late.”
A huge shape rose behind her—then faded away as though dispersed by the wind.
“Kid’s right, old man,” said a voice Singh had not heard for years and was hearing again far sooner than he had hoped.
Iqbal and Runmust Singh—no relation to Narayan—appeared at the edge of the firelight, wavering, as though they were a mist coalescing. Other men appeared behind them, soldiers in a style of armor Narayan had never seen. Amongst the soldiers he saw drooling red-eyed beasts of species he had never seen before, either.
Singh’s heart redoubled its wild pounding.
The girl observed, “Now we know why my aunt quit chasing us.”
Runmust Singh agreed. “Now you know. The Black Company is back. And we’re not happy.” Runmust was a great shaggy Shadar whose sheer size was oppressive.
Iqbal Singh smiled, perfect teeth glistening in the middle of his brushy beard. “This time you’ll have to deal with your mother and your father.” Iqbal was as shaggy and nearly as huge as his brother but somehow less intimidating. The girl remembered him having a wife and several children. But... Did he mean her birth mother? Her natural father? But they were supposed to be dead.
Her knees went watery. She never had seen her natural parents.
The living saint was unable to keep his feet. Kina was going to test him yet again. And he had no energy left to spend in the fight for his faith. He was too old and too feeble and his faith had worn too thin.
Runmust gestured. The soldiers closed in. They were careful men who made certain they did not get between their captives and the crossbows threatening them. They put the girl’s hands into wool-stuffed sacks, then bound her wrists behind her. They gagged her gently, then pulled a loose woolen sack over her head. They were aware that she might work some witchery.
Narayan they placed up on an extra horse, then tied him into the saddle. They were doing him no kindness. They were in a hurry. He would be too slow if they made him walk behind them. They were more gentle with the girl but her immediate fate was identical.
Their captors were not gratuitously cruel but the girl was sure that would change when they found themselves with adequate leisure time. The strange young soldiers in the clacking black armor seemed highly intrigued by what they could see of her pale beauty.
This was not the way she had imagined herself becoming a woman. And her imagination had been extremely active for several years.
The Taglian Territories:
The Dandha Presh
We were high in the pass through the Dandha Presh when the news arrived. The grinding weariness dragging my ancient bones down slipped my mind. I was at the head of the column. I stopped walking, moved aside, watched all the tired mules and men trudge past. Man and animal, we hoped the main force had not stripped Charandaprash of food and fodder.
The Voroshk had sunk deep into exhaustion and despair. Tobo traveled with them, talking all the time, trying to teach them through their pain and apathy. The kids had not had to walk anywhere ever before.
Their flying logs followed right behind.
Lady finally came up. I joined her. I sensed that rumor had reached her already, even though nobody seemed to have any breath to waste on conversation. Rumor is magical, maybe even supernatural.
I told her anyway. “Runmust and Iqbal have captured Narayan and Booboo. They never stopped heading our way after Soulcatcher left off chasing them.”
“You as nervous as I am?”
“Probably more.” We trudged along for a while. Then she said, “I never got a chance to be a mother. I never got a chance to learn how. After Narayan kidnapped her I just went back to being me.”
“I know. I know. We have to keep reminding ourselves not to get emotionally entangled in this. She isn’t going to think of us as Mom and Dad.”
“I don’t want her to hate us. And I know she will. Being the Daughter of Night is her whole life.”
I thought about that. Eventually, I told her, “Being the Lady of Charm was your whole life once upon a time. But here you are.”
“Here I am.” Her lack of enthusiasm would have disheartened a lesser man than I.
She—and I—were of an age now where we spent too much time wondering how things might have gone had we made a few different choices.
I had plenty of regrets. I am sure she had more. She gave up so much more.
Willow Swan went puffing past with some remark about old folks slowing everybody down. I asked, “You guys keeping an eye on Goblin?”
“He don’t fart without we don’t know about it.”
“That goes without saying. The whole countryside knows.”
“He’s not getting away with anything, Croaker.”
I was not confident about that. Goblin was a slick little bastard. If I had the time I would stay right beside him myself, step for step.
Lady said, “Goblin hasn’t done anything suspicious.”
“I know. But he will.”
“And that attitude is beginning to win him some sympathy. I thought you ought to know.”
“I know. But I can’t help recalling One-Eye’s warning, either.”
“You noted yourself that One-Eye would try to get his last lick in from beyond the grave.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I’ll try to take it easier.”
“We need to move a little faster.” The rear guard was almost up to us.
“We could lag behind and sneak off into the rocks for a while.”
“Maybe you’re not as worn out as you thought, then. Get a move on.” And after a moment, “We’ll talk about that tonight.”
Some motivation, then.
The Great General
Thus far Mogaba had contained the worst reaction to the seething rumor cauldron that Taglios had become. His most useful tool was the carefully placed half-truth. His representatives did not deny that something big and dangerous was going on down south. They did, however, suggest that it was an uprising by the same sort of Shadowlander troublemakers who had supported the Black Company during the Kiaulune wars. They were milking that connection from the past, trying to intimidate opponents and encourage friends. There was no Black Company anymore.
Rumor had not yet discovered the Prahbrindrah Drah and his sister. Mogaba would offer the suggestion that those people were imposters when stories did begin to circulate.
“This is actually going better than I expected,” the Great General told Aridatha Singh. “None of the garrison commanders have refused their marching orders. Only a handful of the senior priests and leading men have tried to pretend neutrality.”
“I wonder if that state would persist if we lost the Protector.”
Mogaba had been trying to find out for some time. The Prahbrindrah Drah had yet to produce an heir. His only living relative was his sister, who had run Taglios and its dependencies for years in fact, if not in name. At one point she had proclaimed herself her brother’s successor. Though the culture militated against a female ruler she might be allowed to take over again if her brother preceded her in death. No one knew what would happen if brother and sister were both gone, as most of the population believed them to be.
The question was entirely an intellectual exercise, these days. Power in Taglios belonged to the Protector almost exclusively.
Mogaba never pressed his questions beyond a purely speculative level. None of his respondents suspected a deeper purpose. Nor did anyone volunteer to participate in an effort to get rid of the Protector, though it was no secret that most Taglians would prefer to do without Soulcatcher’s protection.
Communications with Soulcatcher had ceased. The crow population had suffered a dramatic decimation, whether from disease or enemy action remaining unclear. Their numbers had been dwindling for decades, until murders in the wild were almost unknown. Bats could not carry significant messages. Owls would not. And there was no one at the Taglian end trained to manage and communicate with shadows. That was a rare talent indeed and the Black Company had exterminated the brotherhood who had shared it back when they were still running things their way.
Soulcatcher had scoured the Shadowlands, whence those people had sprung, length and breadth. She had turned up just a few old women and very young children who had survived all the wars and purges. They seemed to be a people unrelated to any other in the south, had been unknown there before the advent of the Shadowmasters, and among themselves had a oral tradition of having come from an entirely different world. Those old women and babies had lacked any useful knowledge or talent.
When his duties granted the time, Mogaba walked the main route from the Palace to the city’s southern entrance. The walls had been under construction for decades and remained unfinished but the southern gate complex, the most important, had been completed and put into use ages ago. By channeling traffic through its bottleneck the state managed to tax all incoming travelers.
He was looking for the perfect place to put an end to the Protectorate. Four explorations had not revealed it yet. The obvious sites were just that: obvious. Soulcatcher would be alert. She was intimate enough with human nature to realize that rumors fed by the crisis in the south would reawaken opposition to her rule.
There seemed to be no way to manage it in the streets. And the longer it was delayed the more certain she was to become suspicious of her captains. It would be impossible for them to conceal their nervousness.
It would have to be instantly upon her arrival or immediately upon her entering the Palace. Or never.
They could forget the whole thing, go back to being her faithful hounds, and wait with her for the disaster from the south.
When Mogaba thought of the Company he shuddered and was most sorely tempted to abandon the plot against the Protector. Soulcatcher would be a potent weapon in that war.
The gate. The south gate. It had to happen there. The complex had been engineered for exactly that sort of thing, although on a larger scale.
When he returned to the palace he found Aridatha Singh waiting. “There was a messenger, General. The Protector has reached Dejagore. She took time out to review the troops assembling there, though it would seem the enemy isn’t that far behind.”
Mogaba made a face. “We don’t have much time left, then. She won’t lag long behind our couriers.” Unspoken, but understood, remained the fact that they were running out of time to chose their final commitment.
Then Mogaba grunted. He had realized, suddenly, that the Protector could pluck the whole opportunity right out of their hands. Easy as snapping her fingers.
The Taglian Territories:
Below Lake Tanji
We overtook Sleepy in the hills beyond the north shore of Lake Tanji. Lady hurried ahead. She knew better but could not help herself.
Runmust Singh’s rangers were still somewhere out ahead of the main force. They were close enough for their campfires to be seen across the barrier hills but recent hard rains had flooded the ravines and creeks between here and there. Which was the only reason we had caught Sleepy so soon. The flooding had slowed her down.
“It won’t be long,” she told us. “Unless we get more rain. These washes drain fast.”
I knew. I fought the Shadowmasters across these hills, many years ago.
My wife was exasperated. She turned on Tobo, who, with his father, was renewing acquaintances with Sahra. “When are you going to learn enough about those damned posts so we can use them?” A little flooding would slow nobody if we could fly.
Tobo told Lady the truth, which was the last thing she wanted to hear. “It might be months yet. Maybe even years. If we’re all so anxious to become more mobile, why don’t we wake the Howler up and make a deal for some flying carpets?”
Debate was immediate and brisk with almost everyone feeling a need to offer an opinion. Goblin, Doj, Lady, Tobo, Sahra, Willow Swan, Murgen, Goblin again. Even Thai Dei looked like he had a viewpoint, though he kept it to himself.
I realized that Sleepy had not stated her opinion. In fact, her eyes had glazed over. She was far, far away. Her intensity was disturbing.
One by one, the others fell silent. A foreboding emotional murk began to gather. I looked for Unknown Shadows but saw nothing. What was going on?
Tobo spoke up first. “Captain? What’s the matter?” Sleepy had begun to lose color. I got up to go find my medical kit.
Sleepy came out of it. “Tobo.” Her voice was so intense silence spread in all directions. “Did you remember to restore the shadowgate so it won’t collapse if Longshadow dies?”
The silence deepened. Suddenly we were holding our breaths. And staring at Tobo. And every one of us knowing the answer even if we had not been there and did not want it to be true.
Sleepy said, “They’ve had him in Hsien for as long as we’ve been here. He was a frail old man. He won’t last.”
Without saying a word Tobo started getting ready to travel. Groaning, I clambered to my feet and began getting my stuff together, too. Tobo began telling his father and Uncle Doj how to manage the Voroshk. “You have to keep them engaged. Keep them trying to learn. Keep them away from Goblin. You’ll need to force-feed the sick one. I don’t think he’s going to last much longer.”
I was not sure I overheard that last remark. He spoke very softly.
He was right. The kid was slipping away. I could not stop it.
I looked hard at Lady, who had shown no sign of getting ready to do what had to be done. I told her, “You need to come. Following Tobo you’re our best gate mechanic.” I offered a hand.
Murgen, I noted, was paying his son’s instructions no attention. He was getting ready to travel, too.
Lady’s expression hardened. She accepted my hand. Upright, she stared northward. The fires in Runmust’s camp were not visible now. Rain was falling between here and there.
Several others, including Willow Swan, quietly began getting ready to travel, too. No names were named, no orders were given. Those who needed to go or thought their presence would be useful began packing. Nobody grumbled. Nobody said much of anything at all. We were all too tired to waste energy doing anything but what had to be done.
No fingers got pointed, either. It took no genius to understand that Tobo had been swallowed up by his own workload, with people wanting something more from him every minute. Sleepy bore the heaviest responsibility. It was her job to see that everything got done. She should have had a checklist. But she had been singleminded in her desire to move faster than resistance could coagulate in front of her.
For that she could not be faulted. The Company had seen no fighting yet, though nearly a quarter of the Taglian empire could be accounted disarmed. It was the most remote and lightly populated quarter but the strategy remained sound.
The wealth Sleepy had brought off the plain would let her exploit the territories we held far more effectively than would Soulcatcher’s capacity for generating terror allow her to exploit what she held.
Of course, if the shadowgate collapsed all that would be moot. Our world would be in greater danger than Khatovar. Unlike the Voroshk, we could not defend ourselves.
Tobo did not bother collecting the few bamboo fireball throwers left. If we became desperate enough to need them that handful would not do any good.
There were eight of us. Tobo and his father, me, Lady, Willow Swan, and Thai Dei because Murgen never got out of rock-throwing range of Tobo’s uncle. Then there were two older-than-average hardcases from Hsien, solid veterans of the warlord conflicts. One we knew as Panda Man because his real name sounded like that. The other was Spook. He was Spook because he had green eyes. In Hsien demons and haunts are supposed to have green eyes.
The Unknown Shadows refuse to conform. Every one of those haunts that I have actually seen had the more traditional red or yellow eyes.
Many of the Unknown Shadows traveled with us. At night, under the moon when it made its infrequent, shy appearances, the ground surrounding us seemed to be a sea in motion. Tobo’s pets did not mind being seen just now.
Before long my two ravens rejoined me. I had seen nothing of them since shortly after we had left the shadowgate.
Tobo told me, “I’ve sent scouts ahead. Now I’m going to ride ahead, too.” He was mounted on Sleepy’s superhorse. “The rest of you follow me as fast as you can.”
He surged ahead. Most of the churning darkness went with him, though we retained enough shadowy outriders that no danger would take us by surprise.
“I’m sorry,” I told Lady.
“Not your fault this time.” She was not happy, though.
“You gotten anything out of Kina yet?”
“No. Nothing but a few infrequent touches while we were up there with Sleepy. They were pretty faint and probably just because we were close to Booboo.”
Damn. “You think we can get back to the gate in time?”
“You think Longshadow will fight for life if he knows that the only thing he can accomplish is to save the people who pulled him down and turned him over to his oldest enemies?”
That was not the answer I wanted to hear.
The Nether Taglian Territories:
Leaves of Misfortune
Runmust and Iqbal rode northward slowly, at a pace their whole band found comfortable. Life would not be too hard until the Captain caught up. She would be put out because the rangers did not meet her as soon as possible. She would get over it.
The prisoners were given no opportunity to enjoy life, but they were not tormented directly. The Singhs would not have allowed that even had they known that Sleepy would not mind.
There was no formal arrangement between the Singhs and the dark spirits out of Hsien but Unknown Shadows paced them always. Communications remained crude. Runmust generally just got a really bad feeling when it was time to watch out. The problem was his. A religious failing. He was allowed no congress with demons. His innate human knack for rationalization had not yet exonerated the Unknown Shadows from being spawn of darkness.
Runmust began to have one of those bad feelings. It grew worse fast. Iqbal’s uneasiness said that he had been touched, too. Even some of the soldiers were becoming troubled.
Quick hand gestures. The ranger team halted. Everyone dismounted. Scouts crept forward while the men assigned the duty for the day began moving the prisoners and horses into a gulch off the road.
The warriors of Hsien could be remarkly quiet and patient. Runmust admired their skill in using the available cover in terrain, boasting only tangled, scrubby brush, rocks and lots of gullys. He could not do what they did. Of course, he was twice the size of the biggest and a decade older than the oldest.
Minh Bhu, one of the best, intercepted him in his slow advance, after signing for absolute silence.
Minh brushed leaves aside and smoothed a patch of dirt. He used a forefinger to sketch the ground ahead, indicating the approximate positions of a well-chosen ambush site.
Runmust signaled a general withdrawal. He looked for crows or other creatures traditionally associated with the enemy. He saw nothing. “How could they know we were coming?” he asked when he was far back enough to whisper. “How many of them are there?”
Minh shrugged. “We’re not going to get a head count. There are a lot more of them than there are of us. And as for how did they know, from that hilltop you can see all the country we crossed the last two days. They were probably just sent out to see if this is the route north the Captain picks.” He pointed back south. The dust and sparkle of the main force were obvious.
“Why an ambush?”
“They can see there aren’t many of us. It would look like a chance to take some prisoners.”
“Uhm.” Runmust scanned the slope. Could he turn the tables on those people? He wished he had developed a more intimate relationship with the Unknown Shadows. “Iqbal. Talk to me.”
“We’re outnumbered, we should back away. There’s no reason to get in a fight. Or even make contact. We’ve got important prisoners to protect. So let’s stay away and wait for the Captain.”
Iqbal was a married man. He did not favor major risks.
Even so, Iqbal was right. Withdrawal was the only course that was not crazy. Runmust asked, “What would they do if we did stroll into their trap?” He wished he could catch a couple of them. A few questions answered would tell a lot about enemy plans and what the other side thought was happening.
“They see Sleepy coming. They’ll pull out pretty soon.”
“Why do I keep getting more and more nervous?” Runmust knew the Unknown Shadows wanted him to know something and he just was not hearing it.
In the hills ahead horses began screaming. Men cursed. Several dozen arrows rose into the air, fell where the enemy evidently thought the rangers were hidden. None of the arrows came close.
Muttering curses himself, Runmust waved his men back again. They began slipping away. Wildly sped arrows fell all across the slope. “Idiots,” Runmust muttered. “Recon by fire.” The Protector’s soldiers would charge any outcry. Or any other obvious reaction. They were an opportunity to inflict disaster just waiting to happen.
A Taglian soldier sprang up not ten feet from Runmust, barking in pain as he swatted his ass. Runmust froze, hoping the Taglian was too preoccupied to notice him—though now he heard other Taglians pushing through the dry brush and knew he could not sneak off fast enough to get away untouched.
Iqbal carried a fireball launcher. He was supposed to use it as an emergency signal, not as a weapon. It was believed to contain just one charge. It was ancient. There was no guarantee it would work at all.
Iqbal, unseen by the man who had now spied Runmust, rotated the handgrip trigger on that piece of bamboo.
An intense yellow ball slammed right through the Protector’s man and rattled around in the brush behind him. In seconds a dozen fires were burning.
Runmust and Iqbal ran. No point doing anything else now.
They had almost reached the gully hiding the animals and prisoners when a random arrow found the unprotected meat of Runmust’s right thigh. Singh flung forward in an uncontrolled dive. His beard protected his face as he ploughed through the brush but he left large tufts behind. He squealed with the unexpected pain.
Iqbal stopped to help.
“Get out of here!” Runmust growled. “You have Suruvhija and the children.” Which moved Iqbal not at all.
The Taglian troops blundered down the hillside, scattered, in no order, without discipline or thought. Officers, sergeants and men, they had no practical experience and very little training. They had come out of the Nijha fortress because Soulcatcher had told them they might achieve a startling triumph. But once the situation on the ground deviated from their expectations they were lost.
Stumbling, dragging the leg with the arrow still embedded, Runmust clung to and leaned on Iqbal. Both men heard the exultant Taglian soldiers plunging through the brush behind them, swiftly bringing the inevitable.
The rangers were men chosen from those who had seen prior action serving the warlords in Hsien and who both understood Company doctrine and accepted it. They set an ambush of their own. The Taglians came to it as though guided by maleficent demons.
The result was a bloodbath. It was a tactical triumph for the Black Company. It was not unalloyed by bad news. In the end, in the heat of the moment, the rangers did fail to acknowledge doctrine. They did not fade away while the Taglians were confused and panicky. They maintained contact in hopes of making sure Runmust and Iqbal escaped.
The Singh brothers did survive. But when the light cavalry, flung forward by Sleepy right after she recognized the fireball signal, arrived they found most of the rangers wounded or dead after having been overrun. The horsemen pursued the fleeing Taglians. They cut down most of the enemy wounded and stragglers.
Sadly, they failed to recapture the Daughter of Night.
A particularly bright Taglian officer had recognized what he had stumbled across and got the girl moving to the rear immediately. Her grub-colored skin had given her away.
When that day’s sun set it was a tossup which side would consider the encounter the greater disaster. The Company had lost a huge treasure and some of its most valuable men, at least for a while. The Taglians had endured a huge massacre with only one sullen, if exotically beautiful, pale, dirty young woman to show for all the deaths.
The Nether Taglian Territories:
The Captain herself reached the scene of the fighting just an hour after its end. She stomped around. She nagged the survivors with questions. Most of the rangers had survived but only two had managed without suffering serious wounds. Sleepy interrogated prisoners even more emphatically. The cavalrymen had retained sense enough to capture a few Taglians who offered to surrender, presuming they would continue to cooperate to save their skins.
None of the prisoners knew anything about the Daughter of Night. None even knew that name.
The Captain’s prowling took her near Narayan Singh. She kicked the old cripple. “Hellspawn.” She turned, bellowed, “Why didn’t we know about this ambush ahead of time?”
Some bold soul told her the truth. “The Unknown Shadows probably did know. But nobody asked them. Tobo is the only one who knows how to talk to them the way it takes to get them to do the kind of spying you want.”
Sleepy growled. She kicked Narayan Singh again. She paced. “What do we know about this fort?”
Blade came forward. He would save the others. Sleepy’s wrath fell less heavily upon him. Usually. Some thought she was a little afraid of Blade. In fact, she was just not sure of him, though he had been around longer than she had. Like Swan and Sahra, he was not actually a sworn brother of the Company. But he was always there and always involved.
Blade said, “The old Captain established it. It was a remount station for the first courier post. The wall got added because the natives kept trying to steal the horses. Soulcatcher eventually expanded the fort and garrison during the Kiaulune wars because she wanted a stronger presence here in case her enemies tried to sneak north this way. Assuming she did here the way she did everywhere else, she forgot the place as soon as the fighting was over. The garrison might be a hundred fifty or two hundred. Plus hangers-on.”
“Pretty big gang for out here.”
“It’s a big territory. And half of them are out of business now.”
“What’re the fortifications like?”
“I’ve never been there. I hear they’re barely good enough to stop horse thieves. Which means not real impressive. Some kind of rock wall, since that’s the available material around here. I’ve heard there’s a ditch that was never completed. Didn’t you come this way when you ran south? Didn’t you see it?”
“We took a trail west of here. The old trade road. We avoided the courier routes.”
“You might send some cavalry to surround the place before they can move the girl out.”
Sleepy mused, “It’s probably too late to stop them yelling for help.”
Blade said, “I don’t think you need to worry about sneaking. By now Soulcatcher’s got the whole Taglian empire alerted.”
Sleepy grunted. Then she sent for cavalry officers. And after she sent them off she visited Runmust and Iqbal. Those two had been close friends for two decades. She asked Iqbal’s wife, Suruvhija, “What did the surgeon say?”
“They’ll recover. They’re Shadar. They’re strong men. They fought well. God will watch over them.”
Sleepy glanced at Sahra, who was helping tend the wounded. Sahra nodded, meaning Suruvhija was not just wishful thinking.
“I’ll include them in my prayers as well.” Sleepy squeezed Suruvhija’s shoulder reassuringly, thinking the woman was too perfect to be real. At least as men saw wives. But she was Shadar, too, and she believed, and the roles of all members of the family were clearly defined by her religion.
Sleepy took time to talk to Iqbal’s children, too. They were bearing up bravely. As they would, for they were good Shadar, too, despite the strange lands and societies they had seen.
When she was around Iqbal’s children, Sleepy sometimes even vaguely regretted having abandoned the woman’s role. But that never lasted more than a few seconds.
“Blade. Pass the word. I want the whole gang up to this fort before sunset. If that’s possible. Once they see some numbers I’m sure they’ll give up.”
Blade told her, “You know you have to stop before long. The animals need time to graze and recover. And we have a tail of stragglers that has to stretch all the way back to Charandaprash.”
People got hurt or sick or just could not keep up. It irked Sleepy but it was a fact of life. Her strength was down maybe a thousand men already. That would worsen rapidly if she continued to drive hard.
“When they get here the most worn-out ones can take over as our garrison.” That was a tactic as old as soldiering.
She would not admit it but she needed a rest herself. She could not imagine when she would get one, though.
The Taglian Shadowlands:
“Seem like there’s much point dragging my weary ass over there?” I asked Lady. There was just enough dawn-light to show the vague outline of the slope leading up to the shadowgate. Which was still miles and miles from where we had spent the night. This part of the journey was one of those where you spend the whole day trying not to look ahead because every time you do it seems you have not gotten ten feet closer. Way to our left a smoky haze concealed the New City and the lower half of ruined Overlook. A lot of unpleasant memories connected us with those places.
“What do you mean?” My sweetheart was as tired and morning-cranky as I was. And her bones were a lot older than mine.
“Well, we didn’t get killed last night. That means the gate hasn’t collapsed yet. Old Longshadow’s still holding out.”
“Wouldn’t that mean Tobo’s got everything under control? So why beat ourselves up getting on over there?”
Lady smirked at me. She did not have to tell me. We would cross the valley because, in the end, I would want to see everything for myself. Because I would want to get it all into the Annals, right. She had chided me fifty times during the ride south because I was trying to work out a way to write on horseback. I could get so much more done if I could do it while we were traveling.
Then she chirped, “You are getting old.”
“A sign of advancing age. You start obsessing about how much you have to get done in the time that you have left.”
I made noises in the back of my throat but did not argue. That kind of thinking was familiar. So was being unable to fall asleep because I was tracking my heartbeat, trying to tell if something was wrong.
You would think a guy in my line of work would make his peace with death at an early age.
We ran into several locals while crossing the valley, the bottom land of which was decent farmland and pasture. We did not receive one friendly greeting. I did not see one welcoming smile. Nobody raised a hand in defiance but I had no trouble feeling the abiding resentment of a tormented nation. There had been no serious fighting in these parts for years but the adult population were all survivors of the terrible times, whether they were natives or immigrants who had come in to settle the depopulated lands and to escape even worse horrors elsewhere. They did not want the evils of the past to return.
This land had suffered grotesquely under the Shadowmaster Longshadow. It had continued to suffer after his defeat. The Kiaulune wars devoured most everything that Longshadow and the Shadowmaster wars had not. And now the Black Company had returned. Out of the place of glittering stone, an abode of devils. The season of despair appeared to be threatening again.
“Can’t say I blame them,” I told Lady.
“Oh.” Indifferently. Some attitudes never wither. She had been a powerful lord a lot longer than she had been just another tick on the underbelly of the world. Compassion is not one of the qualities that endeared her to me.
We found Tobo impatient with our dawdling. “I see the old gal’s still here,” I said of the shadowgate. Lady and I produced our keys and let the crew cross over, Murgen first so he could make sure his boy still had all his arms and legs and fingers and toes.
“It is,” the wonder child confessed. “But probably only because Longshadow still hasn’t left the plain.”
“What?” Lady was irritated. “We made promises. We owe the Children of the Dead.”
“We do,” Tobo said. “But we won’t be allowed to kill ourselves. Shivetya knew we forgot to disarm Longshadow’s booby trap so he kept Longshadow from leaving.”
“How do you know that?”
“I sent messengers. That was the news they brought back.”
Lady’s mood had not improved. “The File of Nine will be smoking. We don’t need them as enemies. We may have to flee to the Land of Unknown Shadows again.”
“Shivetya will release Longshadow the second we finish refurbishing our gate.”
My companions were nervous. Willow Swan was pale, sweating, dancing with anxiety and, most of all, un-Swanlike, silent. He had not, in fact, spoken all day.
Thinking about the shadows can do that to you if you have witnessed one of their attacks.
Tobo asked, “You two ready to go to work?”
I shook my head. “Are you kidding?”
Lady said, “No.”
Tobo told us, “I can’t finish this alone.”
I replied, “And you can’t finish it with assistants so tired they’re guaranteed to make mistakes. I have a premonition. Longshadow will keep till tomorrow.”
Tobo admitted that he would. Shivetya would see to it. But he did so with poor grace.
Lady said, “Let’s go set up camp.” Murgen, Swan and the others probably should have been doing that instead of standing around being anxious.
Once we crossed the barrier Lady wondered, “Why is Tobo in such a hurry?”
I snickered. “I think it might have to do with Booboo. He hasn’t seen her for a long time. Sleepy says he was completely smitten.”
While I spoke her expression transformed from curious to completely appalled. “I’d hope not.”
Murgen suggested, “There were two rather attractive Voroshk girls. One of them might have something to do with it.”
The dreamwalkers came during the night. Their presence was so powerful that even Swan, Panda Man and Spook saw them. I heard them speak clearly although I never understood a word.
Lady and Tobo did get something out of them.
They put their heads together over breakfast. They decided that the Nef wanted to warn us about something.
“You think so?” I sneered. “There’s a new interpretation.”
“Hey!” Tobo chided me. “It has something to do with Khatovar.”
“Like what, for example?”
The youth shrugged. “Your guess is better than mine. I’ve never been there.”
“Last time we saw the dreamwalkers they were headed out into Khatovar in the middle of all the shadows on the plain. You think they saw something they think we ought to know?”
“Absolutely. Any idea what?”
Lady asked, “Have you had your Unknown Shadow friends try to talk to the Nef?”
“I have. It doesn’t work. The Nef don’t communicate with the plain shadows, either.”
“Then what was the Unknown Shadows’ problem last night? The Black Hounds kept carrying on so bad they woke me up several times.”
“Really?” Tobo was puzzled. “I never noticed.”
Nor did I. But I am deaf and blind to most supernatural stuff. Plus, for once, I had not been tossing around listening for my heart to stop.
“Let’s get to work.”
“Booboo isn’t going anywhere, kid.”
Tobo frowned. Then got it. He did not become embarrassed or defensive. “Oh? Oh. You don’t know? She’s already gone. There was a fight with the garrison from Nijha. Runmust’s troop got overrun. The Taglians captured the Daughter of Night. Sleepy has cavalry trying to run them down now.”
I shook my head and grumped, “It won’t do her any good. A million horsemen won’t be enough now.”
“Aren’t you pessimistic.”
“He’s right,” Lady opined. She lapsed into an old northern language I had not heard since I was young and which I never had understood completely. She seemed to be reciting a song as a poem. It had a refrain that went something like, “Thus do the Fates conspire.”
We were on the inside of the shadowgate, hard at it. Tobo was making tiny, elegant adjustments to the strands and layers of magic that made up the mystic portal. The training I had received had elevated me to the level of a semiskilled bricklayer. Compared to me Tobo was the sort of master artisan who created panoramic tapestries by weaving them instead of embroidering them. I was nothing but the lead finger man on the bow-tying team.
Even Lady was little more than a hodcarrier on this job. But hodcarriers are needed, too.
“Thanks for the compliment,” Tobo said after I tried out my similes. “But I’m mostly doing embroidery and plain old-fashioned knot tying on broken threads. Parts of this tapestry were plain outright crippled. It’ll never be completely right, even if it’s stronger than when it started.”
“But you can weasel Longshadow’s booby trap out of there?”
“It’s kind of like lancing a boil and cleaning it out, but yes. He actually made a pretty crude job of it. Obviously, he didn’t know much about shadowgates. He did know that there was no one in our world who knew more. What he didn’t understand was that there were more keys.”
“Of course he knew,” I said. “That’s why he sent Ashutosh Yaksha, his apprentice, to infiltrate the Nyueng Bao priests at the temple of Ghanghesha.”
Tobo looked puzzled, like he did not recall that story.
“He knew they had a key there and he wanted it. So he could get back to Hsien. If you don’t know that story you’d better corner your uncle. Because that’s what he told Sleepy.”
Tobo smiled weakly. “Well, maybe. I suppose.”
“What do you mean, you suppose?”
Lady paused what she was doing. “Don’t play Doj’s games, Tobo. You won’t be fooling anybody. I was there. Inside the white crow. I know what the man said.”
“That’s probably it. Doj told Sleepy a bunch of stories. Some were probably true but some he probably made up. Stuff he thought might be true because it sounded plausible based on what he did know. Master Santaraksita spent years searching the records at Khang Phi. The history of our world’s Nyueng Bao isn’t much like what Doj might’ve wanted you to believe.”
“Which was it?” I mused aloud. “Was he lying or making it up?” I have known plenty of people who would not admit ignorance even in the most obvious circumstance.
Tobo said, “Master Santaraksita says our ancestors left Hsien as fugitives, sneaking out like snakes using a secretly manufactured key. They were trying to get away from the Shadowmasters. There was supposed to be a regular, gradual evacuation across the plain. Because they were persecuted followers of Khadi they did favor the organizational structure we’ve seen in other bands of believers but those people weren’t mercenaries and they weren’t missionaries. They weren’t a Free Company. They weren’t a band of Stranglers. They were just running away because the Shadowmasters insisted they had to give up their religion. Master Santaraksita says their priests probably made up a more dramatic history after they’d been settled in the river delta for a while. After several generations spent wandering. Before they arrived the only people in the swamp were Taglian fugitives and criminals and a few remote descendants of the Deceivers Rhaydreynek tried to wipe out. Maybe the Nyueng Bao wanted to impress them.”
Tobo’s hands never stopped moving while he talked. But their movements had nothing to do with what he was saying. He was mending things that I could not see.
“How much did Doj lie?” I was determined to pin that on him. I never did trust that old man.
“That’s the intriguing part. I don’t know. I don’t think he really knows. He did tell me that a lot of what he told Sleepy originally he said just because it sounded believable and like something she wanted to hear. When you get right down to it, except for his skill with Ash Wand, Uncle Doj is a bigger fraud than most priests. Most priests actually believe what they preach.”
Lady said, “Sounds like he’s spent time hanging around with Blade.”
Tobo continued, “The key my ancestors used to cross the plain was created secretly in Khang Phi. It went back to Hsien so the next group of fugitives could use it. They never got the chance.”
“But they had the golden pick.” Which was the key that Sleepy eventually found and used to get onto the plain so she could release us Captured from underneath Shivetya’s fortress.
“That must have been the key that belonged to the Deceivers who hid the Books of the Dead back in Rhaydreynek’s time. They must’ve hidden the pickax under the temple of Ghanghesha. The temple has a long history. It started out as a Janaka shrine. The Gunni took over and used it as a retreat. Then the survivors of Rhaydreynek’s pogrom chased the Gunni out. But they faded away. Nyueng Bao folklore talks about bitter fighting over doctrine in the early days. A century later Gunni holy men from the cult of Ghanghesha began to come back to the swamp. Eventually most Nyueng Bao forgot Khadi and adopted Ghanghesha. A few generations back the pick turned up when the temple was being repaired. Somebody realized that it had to be an important relic. It wasn’t till more recent times, when Longshadow, and later Soulcatcher, found out about it, that anyone realized how important it had to be.”
“What about the pilgrimages?”
“Originally people from Hsien were supposed to meet our people at the shadowgate with news from home and more refugees. But the Shadowmasters found out. Plus on this side my ancestors lost touch with the past. Contrary to legend, and unlike the way things are now, there wasn’t that much pressure from outside. Hanging on to old ways and old ideas wasn’t that important a way to maintain the identity of the Nyueng Bao.”
“Whatever Doj says, most Nyueng Bao aren’t devoted to tradition and keeping the old ways. Most don’t remember anything anymore. You saw that while we were in Hsien. The Nyueng Bao aren’t anything like those people over there.”
Lady and I exchanged looks. Neither of us assumed Tobo was telling any more of the truth than Doj ever had. Though the boy was not necessarily lying consciously. I glanced at Thai Dei. He gave nothing away.
I said, “I’ve been wondering why Doj never found any Path of the Sword guys over there.”
“That’s easy. The Shadowmasters wiped them out. They were the warrior caste. They kept fighting till there weren’t any of them left.”
I had, for years, wondered why a sword-worshipping cult would be part of a people descended from a band of worshippers of Kina, who, in my world, did not believe in shedding blood. I still did not know. But now I knew that nobody else was likely to know, either.
I told Lady, “I’m surprised Sleepy never picked up on the fact that the supposed priest of this Nyueng Bao band went around carving people into steaks.”
“Deceiver people at that,” she added. “He slaughtered them by the score at Charandaprash.”
Tobo is a clever young man. He understood that we did not find his version of history more convincing than Doj’s.
I still was not sure whether he believed what he was saying.
It did not matter.
Lady poked me. She whispered, “Murgen and Willow Swan have drawn my attention to an interesting phenomenon. You’ll want to see for yourself. Tobo, drop doing what you’re doing and look at this, too.”
By then I knew it would be something I did not want to see. Thai Dei, Murgen and the others were debating the best places to take cover already.
I turned. Lady pointed. A trio of Voroshk flyers, appearing only slightly larger than dots, hovered above the rim of the plain. They were way up high and a long way away, motionless.
I asked, “Anybody want to guess how well they can see us?”
Lady said, “They can tell we’re here but that’s it. Unless they have a farseeing device.”
“What’re they doing?”
“Scouting around, I imagine. Now that their gate is gone they can get onto the plain whenever they want. During the day they’re safe as long as they stay off the ground. And they probably won’t have much trouble with shadows even at night if they stay high up. We’ve never seen shadows go higher than ten or fifteen feet above the surface of the shielding.”
“Think they’re looking for us? Or are they just looking?”
“Both, probably. They’ll want revenge. And maybe even a safe new world.”
The Voroshk did not move while we were talking. I pictured similar trios ranging to all points of the plain, perhaps hoping they could open the way without us. “Tobo, can they get off of the plain?”
“I don’t know. They won’t be able to here. Not without one of my keys. I’ll install something that’ll kill them if they try.”
I admired his confidence. “Suppose they have somebody as slick as you are? What’s to keep him from undoing your spells the way you’re undoing Longshadow’s?”
“Lack of training. Lack of the knowledge we got out of Khang Phi. You have to know a little about these things to redo them.”
Lady asked, “Can they break through the gateway into Hsien?” The knowledge was there.
“I don’t know. They got the forvalaka through. Maybe they could shove their own people through on a slow, one-at-a-time basis. They never tried before. But they’ve never been desperate before. And time isn’t on their side.”
“What about Shivetya? What’s his take on this?”
“I’ll find out. I’ll send a messenger in just a minute.”
One of the soldiers from Hsien—Panda Man, I think—asked, “What about the men with Longshadow? If he hasn’t left the plain. One is my cousin.”
Tobo drew a long, deep breath. “My work is never done.”
Lady said, “If you’re going to do something you’d better do it fast. They have a key. It’s at risk.”
“Damn! You’re right. Captain, I’m going to borrow your ravens. Lady, lean out the gate and yell for Big Ears and Cat Sith. They’ll hear you. Tell them I want them. It’s an emergency.”
“One damned thing after another,” I grumbled. “It never lets up.”
“But you’re alive,” Swan said.
“Don’t you be jumping around on the other side of your own argument.” We amused ourselves with some good-natured bickering while Tobo sent supernatural messengers off to Shivetya, the guards at the Hsien shadowgate, Longshadow’s keepers, and our folks up north.
Along the way Murgen asked his son, “What’s to keep those jokers up there from just flying off the plain? I remember times when crows came and went.” And he used to do so himself, all the time.
“They could do that because they come from our world. Crows from any other world we wouldn’t have seen at all. Even if they were there. Yes. The Voroshk can fly out any time they want. But when they do they’ll end up in Khatovar. Every time. If they want to get off the plain into another world they’ll have to come onto it through their shadowgate and leave it through another shadowgate. Shivetya restructured it that way.”
It can be confusing. I guess that happens where realities overlap, with a deathless demigod in the middle who feels compelled to make it hard for the human species to realize its darkest potential.
The Stronghold Falls
There were fewer than fifty soldiers to hold Nijha’s walls, most of them injured already and all of them thoroughly terrified after having endured a night overrun by the Unknown Shadows.
The defenders were accorded the honors of war and allowed to march out without their weapons, taking their families and what possessions they could carry. They were admonished to clear the road whenever the Black Company passed.
If the Nijha stronghold had surrendered any faster Sleepy would have worried that she was walking into a trap. As it was, she did send Doj in first to make sure Soulcatcher had left her no special little gifts.
She had not.
“Put Narayan somewhere where he can’t embarrass me,” Sleepy ordered after the stronghold had been declared secure. “I’ll decide what to do with him in a day or two.” She would have preferred handing him over to Lady and Croaker right away. “Battalion, regiment, and brigade commanders and all senior staff are to assemble in the local headquarters building in one hour.”
Sahra asked, “You think there’ll be room? I really thought this place would be bigger.”
“So did I. Even though we knew it was a glorified remount station. Gosh, I wish Tobo was here instead of down there.”
“So do I.” Sahra hated having her whole family so far away. She had become accustomed to having a real family again during our years in Hsien. “I’ve been thinking. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to keep Tobo and Murgen from going to the same dangerous places?”
“Like the shadowgate?”
“Like that. Or anywhere else where one bad blow could take them both away.”
Sleepy understood Sahra’s agony. Sahra had lost two children and one husband to malignant fortune already. The husband did not trouble her much. His removal had improved her life. But rare is the mother who will not ache forever over the loss of her little ones.
All part of the wondrous cruel experience of the siege of Jaicur, or Dejagore, that has twisted so many members of the Company and burdened them with vulnerabilities and obsessions that will shape their minds and souls for as long as they survive.
“That’s a good idea,” Sleepy said. “Although you can count on getting resistance from the men. Can you imagine Runmust and Iqbal being willing to go anywhere where they’re not elbow to elbow with each other?”
Sahra sighed. She shook her head slowly. “If the Gunni are right about the Wheel of Life then I must have been something more wicked than a Shadowmaster in a previous life. This one never stops punishing me.”
“Let me tell you, it’s harder being Vehdna. You don’t have other lives to blame it on. You just go crazy trying to figure out why God is so angry with you in this one.”
Sahra nodded. The moment had passed. She was in control again. “You’d think I would’ve made my peace with this life by now, wouldn’t you?”
Sleepy thought that she had, about as well as she could, but did not say so. She did not want to push Sahra back onto the path of self-examination. That could get tiresome fast.
“We have a major staff meeting. I want your help. I want you to think in broader terms. I’m rethinking my strategy. The distances are turning out to be too great for a headlong rush. We’re getting weaker fast while our enemies are getting stronger. I want your thoughts on different approaches.”
“I’ll be all right. I have to have these spells once in a while just to get by.”
The Darkness Always Comes
Darkness came to Nijha. With it came an almost supernatural silence. Within the crude walls the senior commanders were clustered with Sleepy and Sahra. Outside, the soldiers were cooking, repairing harnesses and equipment, or, mainly, just sleeping the sleep of the exhausted. A night’s rest was never enough to recover fully from a hard day’s march. Weariness accumulated, and more so when a force covered a lot of miles in a hurry.
For the first time since his liberation Goblin found himself unsupervised, overlooked, forgotten. He did not trust his observations for a while. These were sneaky people. Possibly they were testing him.
Eventually it became evident that he really was running free, unmonitored. This was early in the game and way remote but no better opportunity was ever likely to arise.
Narayan stirred warily, though his despair was such that he could generate little concern about his own continued well-being. Already he had been separated farther, if not longer, from the Daughter of Night than ever before since her birth. If he lost her there would be no reason to go on. It would be time to go home to Kina. There would be nothing more he could do. And there was little chance he would get any opportunity ever again, anyway. He was alive now only because these people were saving him as a plaything for the girl’s birth parents. Again.
His days and hours were numbered and once again his faith was being tested sorely.
He heard a faint, breathy sound that seemed vaguely familiar. And it should be, he thought. His heart began to hammer. That was a Deceiver recognition sign meant for use in darkness exactly like this, where the usual hand signals would not work. He murmured countersigns. The effort set off a coughing fit.
The exchange continued until Narayan was satisfied that he had been located by a religious brother. He asked, “Why have you come? It won’t be possible to rescue me.” He used the secret Deceiver cant, which amounted to the final test. It would, at least, advise him of the status of his visitor. Not many recent converts were yet that advanced in their studies.
“The Goddess herself has sent me to relay her love and her esteem and her appreciation of all your sacrifices. She bid me to assure you that your rewards will be great. She wants you to understand that her resurrection is nearer than any nonbeliever suspects. She wants you to know that your efforts and your trials and your steadfast faith have made the difference. She wants you to know that her enemies soon will be overwhelmed and devoured. She wants you to know that she’s watching over you and that you’ll stand at her side when we celebrate the Year of the Skulls. She wants you to know that of all those who have ever served her, even of her many saints, you were her most favored.”
The encampment below the shadowgate became the hub of a flood of Unknown Shadow traffic as Tobo tried to head off the Voroshk threat. He remained especially worried about Longshadow’s keepers till Shivetya somehow assured him that they were invisible to Voroshk eyes.
“Do you trust him?” Lady asked. She being the most naturally paranoid of any of us at the shadowgate. “He might try to make a better deal with the Voroshk.”
“What better deal? We’re going to give him what he wants. Without trying to control him or even to get much out of him.”
“Bet he thinks we’re too good to be true, then.” She was in a mood.
I asked, “What happened to the golden pickax? The Deceiver key to the shadowgates.”
After a pause to make up his mind about what to admit, Tobo said, “I left it with Shivetya. We may need it again. When it’s time to kill Kina. I couldn’t think of any other place where it would be safer from her followers.” He was troubled as he looked the rest of us over. He was thinking he should have kept that to himself. The golden pickax was an extremely holy Strangler relic that could also be used to help set Kina free.
He was afraid that at least one of us was sure to tell somebody what we had just heard.
It was a long night followed by what promised to be a longer day.
For the uninvolved members of the band these were trying times. There was nothing for them to do but play cards and wonder if the people of the New City would be crazy enough to attack us.
Panda Man and Spook mostly watched the game. They did not do well when they played. Tonk is one of the simplest games ever invented, rules-wise, but a huge part of it is the table talk that goes along with the actual picking up, discarding and laying down of cards. A group accustomed to one another is an entirely different animal from one where the players barely speak the same language. Wherever the Company stops for fifteen minutes a tonk game soon develops. The tradition began ages before my time. It will persist long after I am gone.
Gone. I tried to imagine what life might have been like had I left the Company sometime in the past. My imagination was not up to the task. I confess. I do not have the strength of personality to abandon everything I know, even when all that is just a meandering, unhappy path that, too often, wanders through the outlying marches of hell.
I was a zombie most of the day, carrying that hod for my young bricklayer while most of me was elsewhere, boldly adventuring across those fields of might-have-been.
Sometime late in the afternoon I told Lady, “I probably should tell you this more often. I love you and I’m glad Fate conspired to bring our lives together.”
I stunned her into silence. I know Swan and Murgen gaped and spent some time trying to figure out if I thought I was dying.
The Voroshk had not overlooked us. They were cautious. They showed themselves briefly several times during the day. Their customary arrogance seemed in abeyance.
Once I left my own preoccupations behind I asked Tobo, “What do you suppose they’re up to?” We had talked about it before but I am never entirely comfortable taking a sorcerer’s motives at face value.
“Looking for hope. Or anything that will give them an edge. I expect that, right now, their world is more like hell than almost anything any priest ever imagined. Most of the surviving shadows from the plain must be running loose there. One family of sorcerers, however wonderful their weapons, just has no chance to stop what’s happening. Not before the devastation reaches the scale of an end of the world catastrophe.”
Once upon a time I might have felt bad for the Voroshk and the people of Khatovar. This time when I examined my soul I found not much more than indifference within me.
“How much longer before you’ve finished making all your modifications?” Lady demanded. She was anxious to head north. From oblique remarks I gathered that she wanted to rejoin the main force before disaster struck it. What she could do to avert a disaster was beyond me. She did not have enough magic currently to start a fire without adding flint and steel to the mix.
“Ten minutes, tops,” Tobo replied. “There’s this one last braided strand that needs reweaving and we’ll have us not just a completely healthy shadowgate, it’ll be the toughest there ever was. Tough enough that what happened to the Khatovar gate can’t happen here. In fact, it’s already all those things. What this spell rope is going to do is create a little pocket of darkness that’s invisible from outside so killer shadows can be turned into invisible sentries. They’ll be there ready to jump out at anybody who tries to get through who isn’t already approved by us or Shivetya.”
“Neat,” I said. Lady scowled. She was determined to believe that we were placing too much trust in the golem.
She seemed unable to recognize that trust was not a large part of this equation.
She said, “We’re going to have company in a minute.”
I looked up. Two Voroshk sorcerers were coming down the slope, following the old road, inside what would have been protection if they had not blown up their own shadowgate. A third post-rider remained a dot above the horizon, a remote witness. I asked, “You think they did more damage getting through the barrier and onto the road?”
After only a glance, Tobo said, “No. I think they came in the far end and flew here, following the roads. The other one paced them from above.”
Admirable stupidity, I thought. The two at ground level had no chance of getting back out before dark. Did they think we would protect them from the night? If so they were huge daydreamers.
The Voroshk dismounted a hundred yards away. They walked toward us like walking was a foreign experience. Riding the flying fencepost had to be a huge status symbol back in Khatovar. So huge, walking was never done where your inferiors could see you.
“How long now?” Lady asked Tobo.
“Fifteen seconds. After that I’ll fake it for a bit. Then we all step back through the gate. Are Dad and the others alert?”
Alert was not strong enough a word. A variety of missile weapons were ready. So was one fireball projector but it would not see use while the Voroshk remained on the plain side. The barriers could be damaged by fireballs. Arrows and crossbow bolts, however, could pass through and the wounds they made would heal in moments.
Not that arrows were likely to accomplish much against these chunky old men.
They did seem overweight. They projected an aura of fatness behind the constant stirring of their black cloaks.
“There. I think that should do it,” Tobo said.
Click. Click. Click . That swiftly we three backed through the shadowgate into our own world. Tobo sealed the way. We waited. The kid said, “One of these will be the father of our two troublemakers.”
Probably. The Voroshk did appear interested in communicating. They knew someone on our side spoke the language of the forvalaka.
Their luck was in. Of all the Black Company people who could have been there with Tobo they got me and Lady.
They would get no happiness out of that, though. Their kind rubbed me the wrong way. I would make nothing easy for them.
The Warlords of the Air
These Voroshk, who actually introduced themselves—as Nashun the Researcher and the First Father—both spoke the language of Juniper. Nashun the Researcher had by far the best command. Neither had social skills of a sort likely to put a smile on the face of many mothers. It was clear that the demonstration of manners toward persons outside the family was an exercise with which they had little familiarity.
After the introductions I stated the obvious. “You people sure got yourselves into big trouble.”
You could feel the Voroshk closing their eyes and sighing inside all that black material.
“We will survive,” the boss Voroshk declared. He strained to keep anger and arrogance out of his voice. He had less success with confidence, which made me wonder if he did not really mean it.
“No doubt. What I saw of your family’s capabilities impressed me. But honestly, you realize that your family’s survival will require more than just fending off the shadows.”
Nashun made a dismissive gesture with one gloved hand. “We come to you because we want our children back.”
He spoke clearly and slowly enough that Lady caught that. She made a surprised little noise that might have been half a laugh.
“You’re out of luck. They may prove useful. Nor have we any incentive to give them back.”
Their anger seemed a palpable force.
Tobo felt it. He said, “Warn them that any power they use to try to break through will bounce back at them. Tell them that the harder they try the worse they’ll get hurt.”
I translated. Our visitors were not impressed by anything a boy said. Neither did they experiment. They did recall events at their own shadowgate. The Researcher said, “We are prepared to make an exchange.”
“What do you have to trade?”
“You still have people on this plain.”
“Go for it. They’re covered. When the dust settles you’ll be picking up dead family members.” Of that I was confident. Because Tobo trusted Shivetya completely. “You’re powerful but ignorant. Like an ox. You don’t know the plain. It’s alive. It’s our ally.”
Smoke should have rolled out of their ears. Goblin sometimes did that in the old days. But these men had no sense of humor.
Their desperation overcame their anger.
“Explain,” Nashun hissed.
“You know nothing about the plain but you’re arrogant enough to believe that your power will be supreme there. In a realm of the gods. Evidently you don’t even know your own world’s history. The people you’re facing, that you believe you can threaten, are spiritual descendants of soldiers sent out from Khatovar five hundred years ago.”
“What happened before the Voroshk does not signify. However, you demonstrate ignorance of your own.”
“It is of consequence. You want something from the last Free Company of Khatovar. And you don’t have anything to offer in exchange. Except, possibly, that disdained history and a little contemporary knowledge.”
Neither man commented.
Lady told me, “Ask them why they want these kids back so bad. They’re safe over here.”
“They are family,” the First Father said.
His voice had a quality which made that seem not only plausible but possibly even true.
I said, “They’re a long way away. They’ve been travelling northward steadily since they arrived. One is deathly ill.”
“They have their rheitgeistiden . They can get down here in a few hours.”
“I think this guy is for real,” I told Lady. “He’s really got some mad-ass notion that I’d give those kids their toys and turn them loose, just on his say-so. They sure don’t have to work to survive in Khatovar.”
The Researcher picked up the one word. “I mentioned your ignorance. Listen, Outsider. Khatovar is not our world. Khatovar was one city of darkness, where damned souls worshipped a Goddess of the night. That evil city was expunged from the earth before the Voroshk arose. Its people were hunted down and exterminated. They have been forgotten. And they will remain forgotten. Never will any Soldier of Darkness be permitted to return.”
Once upon a time, on a lazy day, ages before he had become the vessel he was now, Goblin had told me that I would never get to Khatovar. Never. It would forever remain just beyond the horizon. I could get closer and closer and closer but I would never arrive. So I had imagined I had set foot in Khatovar. But I had only been to the world where Khatovar had existed once upon a time.
“Time itself has evened the score. That which Khatovar sent out came back. And the world that killed Khatovar will die.”
“Did you catch that?” Lady asked.
“Huh? Catch what?”
“He used the world evil. We don’t hear that much in this part of the world. People don’t believe in it.”
“These guys aren’t from this part of the world.” I returned to the language of Juniper. “Given a complete, working breakdown on the construction and operation of your flying logs, and of the material from which your clothing is made, I’d say we could give you what you want.”
Lady did her best to keep the others up-to-date on what was being said. She did not always get it right.
Nashun the Researcher could not grasp the enormity of my demand. He tried speaking three different times, failed, finally turned to the First Father in mute appeal. I was sure his hidden face was taut with despair.
I told my guys, “It might be wise to back away from the shadowgate. These people are about out of patience.”
I felt wonderfully wicked. I always do when I frustrate overly powerful, responsible-to-no-one types who think all existence was created only for their pleasure and exploitation.
I told the Voroshk, “It’ll be dark soon. Then the shadows will come out.” And, as the Voroshk exchanged glances, I borrowed from Narayan Singh. “When dealing with the Black Company you would do well to remember: Darkness always comes.”
Lady’s expression was one of less than one hundred percent approval when I turned away. “That could’ve gone better.”
“I let my feelings intrude. I should know better. But talk wasn’t going to get us anywhere, anyway. They think too much of themselves and too little of everyone else.”
“Then you’re giving up the dream of returning to Khatovar.”
The Voroshk made their first furious attempt to bust through the shadowgate.
I did warn them.
They did not want to listen.
It was worse than I had imagined it could be.
It was worse than Tobo had predicted.
The countermagical blast hurled both sorcerers all the way up the slope to the edge of the plain, bouncing and tumbling all the way. By some miracle neither broke the barrier protecting the road. Maybe Shivetya was watching over then.
One still had shown no sign of recovering when I gave up watching. I told Tobo, “I reckon it’s time to go, now. Those guys might have gotten the message this time.”
I did not look back. The trials the Voroshk faced left me confident that they would never become a problem to my world.
As we descended the hill I asked, “Anybody think there might be a connection between the Shadowmasters and the Voroshk? They seem to have gotten their start about the right time. And the Shadowmasters tried to sever all connections with the past in Hsien. It was just too big a job. I wonder what we’d find out if we talked to some ordinary farming stiff over there?”
“I can ask Shivetya,” Tobo said. “And the prisoners.” But he did not sound particularly motivated.
Place of the Dead
Sahra kept calling for more torches. As though bringing in enough light would nullify the disaster. By the time the Captain arrived there were fifty torches, lamps and lanterns illuminating what had been a stable before the Company arrived.
“Strangled?” Sleepy asked.
“I’m tempted to use the word ‘ironic’ but I fear there’s no irony in it at all. Doj. That white raven of Croaker’s was hanging around outside. Find it. There were little people hanging around here, some of them supposedly watching Singh. I want to know what they saw.”
Sleepy had a good idea what she would hear from the Unknown Shadows. It would be a variation on reports she had had before. She said, “I’ll want to send the news south, too.”
Nothing happened around the Black Company without some hobyah there to witness it. The soldiers from Hsien understood that perfectly. They took it for granted. They tended to be well-behaved. But someone without experience of life in Hsien would not take the Unknown Shadows as seriously.
A minute later, Sleepy asked, “I don’t suppose anyone’s seen Goblin, have they? I don’t reckon anyone knows who was supposed to be watching him?”
Riverwalker said, “He was right over there till a minute ago.”
Sleepy looked, considered, muttered, “No doubt right up to the second I decided to consult the Unknown Shadows about what they saw.” Which would have been the same moment he would have realized that his recent history was no mystery to anyone. The moment when he realized that Sleepy had been paying out the hangman’s rope while seeing what she could learn.
Riverwalker asked. “Want him rounded up? In one piece?”
“No.” Not now. Not when the best wizard she had was an old, old man whose skills, outside using a sword, were too weak even to put hexes on people and animals. “But I wouldn’t mind knowing where he is.” Doj could manage that. The Unknown Shadows communicated with him. Sometimes. When the mood took them. “What you do need to do right now is get extra guards around the Voroshk. Goblin showed a lot of interest in them while we were traveling. I don’t want anything happening to them and I don’t want them wandering off.” It did not occur to her to reinforce the company responsible for the comatose sorcerer Howler. But Fortune stood behind her there.
Goblin, it developed, had grabbed a couple of fast horses and some loose supplies and had gotten himself out of Nijha, headed north, all without attracting any particular notice. Sleepy very nearly indulged in profanity when she received the report. Someone pointed out that the little wizard always had had that knack. Sleepy growled, “Then somebody should have been watching for him to take advantage of it.”
Uncle Doj told her, “I can’t stop him or control him but I can make life miserable for him.”
“His horses. The Black Hounds can have a lot of fun with them. And when he tries to lead them to water...” He chuckled wickedly.
“Send them.” Sleepy beckoned Sahra. “I kept leaning both ways during the meeting. Looking for a sign. I’ve just had it. We’re not going to rush in anymore. We’ll move ahead slowly, into more hospitable country, and stop somewhere where we can support ourselves without much trouble. We’ll wait till everyone catches up. And issue a call for volunteers willing to support the Prabrindrah Drah and the Radisha.” If anyone even remembered them.
“Wait especially for my son. Yes.” Sahra was angry and unhappy but too tired to fight much. “Now that Murgen is no longer the major tool.”
“Especially for Tobo, yes. Tonight it was clear that without Tobo we’re in trouble bad.”
Sahra said nothing more. She was tired of fighting a battle in which even the men she wanted to protect refused to honor her concern.
The Taglian Territories:
The Taglian field army slowly assembled astride the Rock Road in lightly settled country midway between Dejagore and the fortified crossings over the River Main at Ghoja. Another, less powerful force, consisting of troops from the southern provinces, assembled outside Dejagore. And a third gathered outside Taglios itself. There seemed no reason to suspect that the force at Dejagore should have any trouble denying that city to a force such as that the Black Company was bringing up. Mogaba expected his enemies to swing west once they descended from the highlands, possibly marching as far as the Naghir River, which they could follow north, then swing eastward again and try to get over the Main at one of the lesser downriver crossings. He intended to let them march and march and wear themselves down. He intended to let them do whatever they wanted till he slammed the door shut behind them. Once he had them north of the Main he could build a ring around them and slowly squeeze.
The Great General was feeling quite positive. Taglios was restive but not rebellious. Even the most remote garrison commanders were bringing their soldiers to the assembly points with their units at near strength even though some harvesting would commence in the far south before the end of the month.
Harvest season inevitably precipitated higher desertion rates.
Best of all, the Protector was staying away. Her tinkering and interference always made his task more difficult. And, of course, it was always his fault when a bastardized plan fell apart.
The Great General gathered his senior staff and inner circle, which included a dozen generals as well as Ghopal and Aridatha Singh. He told them, “The plan appears to be coming together perfectly. With a couple of nudges and timed withdrawals I think we can lead them to the ford at Vehdna-Bota. I still wish we had better communications with the Protector. But she can’t find enough crows anymore. Some plague is wiping them out. I seldom hear from her more than once a day. And then, often as not, she’ll waste time on weather news or a flu epidemic in Prehbehlbed.” Nor were there any shadows about, nor any of the Protector’s lesser spies. Mogaba did not mention that. Taglians were dedicated conspirators. Let them continue to think that there might be eyes in the corners, watching.
Only his own conspiracy need go forward.
The Great General had more to preoccupy him than how to isolate and destroy his enemy. He suspected there was a definite question about the identity of Taglios’ most dangerous foe.
Something about this incarnation of the Black Company had Soulcatcher so concerned that she insisted on focusing all her attention there. Something about this incarnation of the Black Company had touched almost everyone of substance within the Taglian empire, though news of their return had barely had time to spread and there were no eyewitness reports available at all. All customary enmity and internal friction seemed to be dwindling at a time when, normally, factionalism should be exploding as old antagonists tried to use the situation to their advantage.
And Mogaba had found that he was thinking less and less about the practicalities of eliminating the Protector, more and more obsessively about destroying the Black Company. Not just defeating them but obliterating them. To the last man, woman, child, horse, mule, flea and louse.
After decades of unhappy fortune Mogaba was naturally wary of everything—including his own emotional state.
He had begun keeping a personal journal the day he had made the decision to betray Soulcatcher, to track his thoughts and emotions during the subsequent, stressful days. It was a journal he opened only in brilliant sunlight. It was a journal he would destroy before actually taking action against the Protector because there were names in it he did not want betrayed if he failed—and was lucky enough to die before she captured him.
Lately he had noticed an evolution in his thinking about the Company. An accelerating evolution. A frightening evolution.
He had become suspicious of his own reason.
Following a general meeting to consider policy for the empire the Great General met with the men responsible for the capital city.
“Kina is active again,” Mogaba murmured. Ghopal and Aridatha listened politely. He was referencing events from before their time, that they knew only by repute. “She’s doing that thing where she gradually shapes everyone’s prejudices.”
They offered him blank looks.
“Not history buffs, eh?” Mogaba explained. “The strangest part was, nobody ever wondered why they were terrified. They just didn’t remember that three years earlier they’d never heard of the Black Company.”
Ghopal said, “What you’re saying is, the Strangler Goddess has a particular fear of the Black Company. She wants the whole world to climb all over them and destroy them. Even if blood has to be spilled.”
“Isn’t this an interesting quandary,” Aridatha said. “If we can overcome the Black Company, we’ll still have to deal with the Protector. If we knock her down, too, then we’ll still have to handle the Stranglers and Kina, in order to prevent the Year of the Skulls. Wave after wave. No end to it.”
“No end to it,” Mogaba agreed. “And I’m getting to be quite an old man.” He had begun to nurture an outrageous notion almost as soon as he had determined that he was being manipulated. “There are a couple of old records I want to check. I want you both back here same time tomorrow.”
The Great General did not lack courage. The next evening he led Ghopal and Aridatha into the brightly lit room. He presented a more convincing case for his belief that Kina had awakened, drawing heavily upon excerpts from copies of Black Company Annals residing in the national library.
Aridatha Singh said, “I believe you. I just wonder what happened to wake her up again.”
“I’m not sure I understand. But I don’t think I have to. Aridatha does. I trust his wisdom.”
“Then I’ll talk to Aridatha. But you listen.” Mogaba chuckled.
Aridatha listened to his idea, the reasoning behind it, frowning all the while. Ghopal seemed aghast. But he kept his mouth shut. Aridatha went off alone with his thoughts. After a while he nodded reluctantly and said. “I have a brother in Dejagore. I’ll find a reason to go visit. I know some people who might listen to what you have to say if it’s me doing the talking.”
Aridatha said, “You recall a few years ago when the Company underground here started kidnapping people? Willow Swan, the Purohita, and so on? I was one of the people they snatched.”
Ghopal wanted to know why, and Mogaba wondered how he had gotten away.
“I got away because they let me go. They only picked me up because they wanted to show me off to somebody they were holding already.” Aridatha took a long, deep breath and revealed his great secret. “My father. Narayan Singh. They were showing him their power.”
“Narayan Singh? The Narayan Singh? The Strangler?” Ghopal asked.
“That Narayan Singh. I didn’t know. Not till then. Our mother told us our father was dead. She believed it, I think. The Shadowmasters conscripted him into their labor battalions during their first invasion, before the Black Company ever arrived from the north. I was the youngest of four children. I’m pretty sure the older ones knew the truth. My brother Sugriva moved to Dejagore and changed his name. My sister Khaditya changed hers, too. Her husband would die of mortification if he knew.”
“You’ve never mentioned this before.”
“I think you can understand why.”
“Oh. I do. That’s a cruel burden to bear.” Mogaba already found himself responding to the Deceiver connection. With exactly the sort of paranoid fear everyone did to any Deceiver connection. It was inevitable. Aloud, he said, “I wonder how those people ever trust each other?”
Aridatha replied, “I suspect you’d have to be inside and a part of it all to understand. I think the biggest part of it, though, would be their faith in their Goddess.”
The Great General looked at Ghopal Singh. “If the Greys have objections I need to hear them now.”
Ghopal shook his head. “Only one Grey is going to know about this. For now. The others wouldn’t understand.”
“Aridatha. You have someone you trust to take charge while you’re gone?” The City Battalions did not know they were part of a conspiracy to free Taglios from its protector. It was necessary to keep firm control there.
“Yes. But no one in the know. If you have unusual requests you’ll have to justify them based on what’s going on in the city.” The soldiers understood that their role was to keep the peace if the population became too restive for the Greys alone.
Mogaba asked, “Are there enough provocations to make any excuses sound good?”
Ghopal showed a large array of teeth. Shadar were proud of their well-kept teeth. “That’s almost amusing. Since the news reached the street that the Black Company really is back, there’s actually been less related graffiti. As though real Company sympathizers don’t want to risk identification and the non-Company vandals responsible for most of it suddenly don’t want to be identified with any terror that’s for real.”
“You were right, what you said last night. There’s a growing fear of the Company out there. Like you said, it was in olden times. I don’t understand but it’s helping keep the peace just when I expected a lot more trouble.”
“If you need provocations and the villains don’t provide them, feel free to create your own. Aridatha, you know what needs doing. Do it. As quickly as possible. Before events move so fast they rob us of more chances.” Though it could happen almost momentarily, Mogaba had abandoned any real hope of catching the Protector unaware as she returned to the city.
At the moment it seemed she did not plan to return until the Black Company invasion was settled.
The Taglian Territories:
The Middle Ground
Soulcatcher, in full leather and fuller ire, stalked the perimeter of the encampment midway between Ghoja and Dejagore. A dozen frightened officers followed, each silently appealing for mercy to his choice of god or gods. The Protector in a rage was a disaster no one wanted to experience. Her excesses made no more sense than do those of a tornado.
“They haven’t moved. For six days now they’ve hardly taken a step. After hurtling northward like the storm itself, so fast we were killing ourselves trying to pull something together fast enough to stop them. What’re they doing? What changed suddenly?” As always when she was under stress Soulcatcher was a babble of conflicting voices. That added to the uneasiness of the men tagging after her. None had had any experience with her before her arrival in camp. The actuality was more unnerving than the stories predicted. She seemed every bit as cruel and capricious as any god. Several graves beyond the perimeter attested to the violence of her temper.
These sycophants would never find out but those who died had been chosen only after extended supernatural espionage. Not one had been a devoted servant of the Protectorate. Each had said so aloud. Additionally, none had been particularly competent leaders and that had been clear to their soldiers and compatriots. They had attained their positions through nepotism or cronyism, not ability.
Soulcatcher was culling her officer corps. She was disappointed that necessity prevented her from doing more. That corps was terrible. But she would take no responsibility for that. Of course.
How poor would it have been without the efforts of the Great General? Probably an awful, corrupt joke without a punchline. Without Mogaba’s dedicated nurturing there would have been little to assemble here.
How to keep it here? The desertion rate was supportable now but showing signs of rising. Was that the enemy strategy? Wait until the Taglian armies melted because of the demands of the approaching harvest? Would they charge north again then? It sounded like a Black Company sort of thing to do. Indications were, they had the wealth to maintain a force in the field a long time.
Mogaba’s messages indicated his own suspicions concerning a similar strategy. He was tailoring his own approach toward getting his enemy to take the long way around, into a trap.
Soulcatcher did not believe there would be any chance to trap the Black Company. Their intelligence resources were much too wonderful. While her own continued to fade. All species of crows were becoming endangered. Mice, bats, rats, owls, those sorts of creatures had no range. There seemed to be no modern sources of quality crystal or worthy mercury with which to create a scrying glass or bowl. The shadows she still controlled were few and feeble and frightened and she refused to risk them in enemy territory, often because each time she did a few more would not come back. And for now she was cut off from her only source of replacements.
She glanced skyward, saw vultures circling to the north, over woods which ran from right to left for as far as she could see. The growth followed a shallow stream. Her sister had won a small victory over the Shadowmasters there, ages ago, soon after the Black Company had suffered the disaster that led to the siege of Dejagore.
“I’m going to walk up there and see what those vultures find so interesting.”
No one gave in to the urge to protest.
Maybe the vultures would dine on her.
“None of you need to come with me.”
Relief was obvious.
The Nether Taglian Territories:
Lady Made Grumpy Noises
Lady was in a towering rage. I could not recall ever having seen her so close to losing control. “How the hell could they let that happen? Somebody was supposed to stay in that little shit’s pocket every second!”
No one bothered to respond. She did not want answers. Not really. She wanted somebody to hurt.
Tobo was quietly busy talking to things that were there only when you looked away. Big things, little things, human-looking things and things that had escaped from madmen’s nightmares. Goblin was going to be found. Goblin was going to be tracked and harassed and hurt if at all possible, all the live-long day. Insofar as this fragment of the Company was concerned Goblin was going to be the main mission from this day forward. He was to be hunted down and exorcised—or exterminated—before he could engineer any more disasters on Kina’s behalf.
Though long out of practice and definitely out of the habit, Lady hurled a deadly spell at an inoffensive scrub pine. The tree began to wilt almost immediately.
“What the hell was that?” I demanded. “I thought you couldn’t...”
“Be quiet. Let me think.” So astonished was Lady that she forgot to be angry about Goblin.
I was quiet. I gave her all the thinking room a girl could want.
Was there a silver lining inside our latest black cloud?
My at-the-moment not very lucky wife called, “Tobo. Next message you send north, ask if the little shit got away with one of the gate keys. Or anything else unusual.”
Tobo made little gestures to the air, then replied, “I checked on that already. He got away with nothing more than two horses and one saddle. Not even a sausage. He’s probably eating bugs. The only unusual thing mentioned is that nobody noticed him. An eventuation almost certainly artificial in origin.”
“Because he’s being damned hard to notice right now. The Black Hounds shouldn’t be having trouble finding and following him. But they are. He’s as elusive as a ghost. Each time they do make contact it’s because he’s been following the road, without deviating, and they can just wait for him to show up.”
“Following the road where?”
“North. Toward the junction with the Rock Road. Though because he isn’t talking his plans are unclear.”
Tobo still had a sense of humor about what was going on.
I asked Lady, “How did you manage to murder that tree?”
She mused, “A good question. Without a good answer. I never felt any sharpened Kina presence.”
“You think it might have to do with Goblin? We know Kina must’ve put a piece of herself into him or he wouldn’t even be alive.”
“I would’ve sensed something before. I think. Tobo. Did you feel anything weird about Goblin?”
“Of course.” The boy was curt. He was trying to work. Old folks kept interrupting. “He wasn’t Uncle Goblin anymore. But he wasn’t any more powerful than he was before, either.”
I said, “Maybe it was something that didn’t come out until he got the chance to kill Narayan.”
Debate on the why increasingly focused on the fact that crippled old Narayan had been in no shape to run or do anything on behalf of his Goddess and, if left in our hands, would have been compelled to reveal whatever he knew eventually. And while most of us would view his murder as a betrayal by his Goddess, what we knew of Deceiver doctrine suggested that he might actually see it as a reward. Having been strangled for the Goddess, Narayan would go directly to Deceiver paradise where, no doubt, his rewards would be commensurate with his service.
I tend toward the cynical view where religion is concerned.
After a silence so extended I decided she was not listening, my beloved responded, “You might just be smarter than you look. She’d expect us to be suspicious enough to watch every breath Goblin took. So she’d want him to seem as normal as possible until he got a solid chance to get away.” She began to pace. “Poor Goblin. That would’ve been mostly him, maybe even really trying to help his old friends as much as he could. And he’ll still be partly Goblin, but a prisoner inside his own body.” The hollowness of her voice indicated that she might have been through that herself, once upon a time.
“Which tells us nothing of his purpose. Or of Kina’s.”
“She’s in prison. She wants out. That doesn’t take any special figuring.”
“But there’ll be a grand plan. Old Goblin didn’t get his soul eaten up just so he could be flung across the pond of the world like a skipping stone. He’s going to go somewhere and he’s going to do something and if he gets away with it all the rest of us are going to end up really sorry.”
Lady grunted. She was still mostly angry.
I said, “He headed north. What’s up there that would interest Kina?”
Tobo interrupted his sweet talk with his pets. “Booboo.” He sounded as unhappy as I felt. “He’s going to take Narayan’s place watching over the Daughter of Night.”
“Yeah. Only there’ll be a big chunk of Goddess in him so he’ll be a lot more dangerous than Narayan ever was.”
Lady glared around her with an expression that made me think she did not have much trouble seeing Tobo’s friends. “Do you think my sister can be made to hear one of those?”
You could have heard a stack of pans drop. Even the animals quieted down.
I asked, “You have something in mind?”
“Yes. We send her a message. Tell her what’s going on with Goblin. It’s as much in her interest to stop him as it is in ours.”
“And she has a personal interest,” Tobo reminded us.
I understood immediately but Lady needed it explained. “Goblin is the reason Soulcatcher has a bad leg.”
“Oh. Of course. I remember now.”
She ought. She was there, spying on everything through the eyes of a white crow, during the kidnapping of the Radisha. That same night Goblin managed to trick Soulcatcher into springing a booby trap. The result had been serious and irreversible damage to her right heel.
Tobo said, “She gets around pretty well now. She wears a special boot and brace and is supported by several specialized spells. She only limps when she’s really tired.”
“Ah. She’ll definitely want to chat with Goblin, then. She’s always been a sore loser.”
“Just a thought,” I offered. “What happens if Soulcatcher turns Goblin into her own version of the Taken? And maybe Booboo, too? Word is, there were times when she showed a few powers of her own.”
“Make a slave out of a Goddess?” Lady was incredulous. I raised an eyebrow. She protested, “What I did wasn’t the same thing at all. What I did was pure parasitism. I wormed in so she couldn’t get me out without hurting herself.”
“And now you’re getting a little of that back?”
“But it doesn’t feel the same. Tobo. Can you send a message to my sister or not?”
“I can try. In fact, I can do it. Easily. The real question would be whether or not she’d listen.”
“She’ll listen or I’ll kick her butt.”
It took all of us a moment to realize she was joking. She did so so rarely.
Tobo began concentrating on the task of getting an extended message to Soulcatcher.
Again I cautioned, “There’s a risk in this.”
Lady just made one of her grumpy noises. She was turning into a cranky old witch.
The Taglian Territories:
A Haunted Wood
Soulcatcher glanced back before entering the wood. “So where are they all?” And in a firm male voice she demanded, “What happened to all the suck-ups?”
Another voice, “Somebody should’ve wanted to kiss up.”
A puzzled voice asked, “They always do, don’t they?”
“Are we losing it here?”
“I don’t like it.”
“This isn’t fun anymore.” Petulant, spoiled child voice.
“Most of the time we’re just going through the motions. There aren’t any challenges here.”
“Even when there are it’s almost impossible to get impassioned enough to care.”
Most of those voices were businesslike but jaded.
“It’s hard to keep going on fuel like hunger for revenge alone.”
“It’s hard to be alone, period.”
That remark brought on an extended silence. Soulcatcher did not have a voice for expressing the emotional costs of being who she was. Not out loud. Ferocious mad-killer sorcerers do not whine because nobody likes them.
The growth along the creek had a sharp boundary. In another time the land must have been groomed by human occupation. Soulcatcher listened. The wood, which was a little more than a mile wide, seemed remarkably silent. There should have been a racket from work parties harvesting firewood and timber for use around the camp. But there was nothing. And she did not recall authorizing a holiday. Something had frightened the soldiers away.
Yet she sensed no danger.
After a moment, though, she did detect a supernatural presence.
She glanced upward. Those vultures continued to circle. They were lower now. They seemed to be wheeling above the presence she sensed.
Warily, she probed farther and deeper. She had remarkably well-honed senses when she cared to concentrate.
This presence was like nothing in her experience. Something like a powerful shadow, yet with a strong implication of working intelligence. Not a demon or some such otherworldly entity, though. Something that felt like it was a part of nature but still having about it a hint of not belonging to this world. But how? Not of this world but not otherworldly?... Something very powerful but not driven by malice. At the moment. Something timeless, accustomed to patience, mildly impatient right now, again a smart-shadow thing like those stalkers down south had been.
Soulcatcher extended her senses to their maximum. This thing was waiting for her. For her alone. It had repulsed everything but those vultures. She had to be careful. Despite her ennui she did not want to trigger a fatal ambush.
There was nothing.
She stepped forward.
She did so while assembling a quiver of sudden and deadly spells. She squinted behind her mask, looking for this thing that wanted to see her.
It grew stronger but less focused as she moved toward it. For a moment it seemed that it was all around her—even while being in one place somewhere ahead of her. When she did arrive where her senses told her it ought to be, she saw nothing.
That place was a small clearing just off the Rock Road, across the shallow stream. She saw several Vehdna grave markers and a few Gunni memorial posts with time-gnawed prayer wheels on top. This must be where her sister fought the Shadowlander cavalry during her flight from Dejagore. In a time so long ago that she still had believed Narayan Singh to be her friend and champion.
Sunlight tumbled through the leaves overhead. It dappled the clearing. Soulcatcher settled on a rotten log that protruded from what might once must have been an earthwork. “I’m here. I’m waiting.”
Something large moved at the edge of her vision. She got the impression of a black feline. But when she turned she saw nothing.
“So that’s the way it’s going to be, eh?”
“Thus it must be. Ever.” The response seemed to come from nowhere in particular and it was not clear whether she heard it with her ears or inside her head.
“What do you want from me?” Soulcatcher used a deep masculine voice heavy with menace.
The presence was amused, not intimidated. “I bring a message from your old friend Croaker.”
Croaker was no friend. In fact, she was distinctly piqued with that man. He had not been entirely cooperative when she had tried to seduce him and now he had refused to stay buried after she had tried to kill him. Still, he was the reason she had a head on her shoulders these days. And that tiny edge would be why this communication was arriving in his name.
The whatever-it-was did as she bid. As she listened she poked around in an effort to fathom its true nature. While searching for some handle she could grasp to make it over into an agent of her own.
It sensed what she was doing. It was amused. Not troubled. Not frightened. Not inclined to react. Just amused.
Soulcatcher reviewed the story carefully once the spook had finished relating it. It sounded plausible. If incomplete. But why expect those people to be entirely forthcoming in such a situation?
Try as she might she could discover no obvious trap. They sounded worried down there. This news could explain their sudden shift of strategy.
Goblin possessed by Kina. Narayan Singh dead. The Daughter of Night running loose... Not running loose at all! In the hands of her troops, on the Rock Road somewhere south of Dejagore, very probably looking for an opportunity to get loose.
Goblin might arrange that.
She bounced up off the rotten log, ennui gone. “Tell Croaker he can consider communications opened. I’ll take steps to deal with the situation. Go! Go!”
A flicker. Like a shadow passing through and deserting at the same time. It left a deeply felt chill and one more uncertain glimpse of an impossibly large, catlike form moving away at an impossible pace.
From the nearby Rock Road came the rattle and clop of a large party headed south. Camels seemed to be involved. That meant civilians. There were no camels in her armies. She hated camels. They were filthy animals with nasty tempers even on their best days.
She leapt across the creek and hurried to the edge of the woods, emerging not a hundred feet from where a caravan was doing the same. Civilian it was, but most of the wagons and camels and mules would discharge their cargo in her camp.
The caravaners spied her. They were startled. And frightened.
Her blood was moving again. She always enjoyed the impact she made when she appeared unexpectedly.
As she turned and raised her gaze to the circling vultures she thought she glimpsed a familiar face among the merchants and teamsters. Aridatha Singh? Here? How? Why? But when she looked more closely she saw no Aridatha. Maybe it was just someone who looked like Singh. Maybe it was her reawakened zest reminding her that it had been a long time since she had enjoyed a man. Aridatha Singh had a definite masculine allure. Few women failed to notice that, though he seemed entirely unaware of the effect he had.
Time enough to think about that after she alerted Dejagore and got troops of cavalry out to round up her niece, that willful, difficult child.
There must be some way to gain control of her and add her talents to the arsenal of the Protectorate. Possibly she might even take Goblin—despite the fact of his possession.
Goblin never had been much of a wizard.
How sweet revenge was when it arrived after a long delay.
Then let that bitch Ardath and all her dogs come on! A lot of ancient debts would get paid off.
As she approached the encampment ditch she glanced back to consider the vultures again.
The carrion birds had broken their circle. Only a few remained in sight, cruising the sky in search of something rank and tasty again.
Soulcatcher found a voice she had not used since she was young. With it she began to sing a song of springtime and young love, in a language recalled from the springtime of life, when love still lived in the world.
The sentries were extremely frightened.
The Taglian Territories:
The Thing in the Cesspit
“I have a question,” Murgen said. The stronghold at Nijha was in sight. “Who’s going to tell Sleepy we’re in bed with the Protector?”
I replied, “I don’t reckon anybody has to. Not putting it that way, anyhow.”
“She’s a reasonable woman,” Lady opined. “She’ll understand what we did and why.”
Tobo laughed. Murgen just grinned weakly. The boy wizard said, “You must not have been paying attention. Or you must’ve mistaken the Sleepy I know for somebody else.”
I told him, “She’ll get over it. How’s Soulcatcher doing on cutting Booboo off?”
“She has pickets out in a line south of Dejagore. The line keeps spreading out wider, to either side of the Rock Road. She doesn’t entirely trust me to send her solid information. And I’m not giving her everything I know because I don’t want her guessing how well I can keep an eye on her. She’s not talking about this to her captains, by the way. My guess is she’s afraid she’ll start losing them if they begin worrying about Kina.”
What a bold lot we were. When first the Company arrived in the Taglian Territories a fixed part of Taglian culture was that the Goddess was never named lest her attention be attracted. If a name just had to be used people would reference the watered-down avatar from Gunni myth, Khadi.
The fact that the name Kina is now widely used in daily speech is one more indication of the magnitude of the impact the Company has had these past few decades.
Maybe those old-timers had been right to be terrified of us. We have shaken a civilization to its foundations. And its future does not look bright.
They asked for it. All we ever wanted was to pass on through.
“We won’t have to deal with Sleepy for a few days yet,” Tobo told us. “She’s moving out of the highlands onto the plain, following the south bank of the Viliwash right now. She’s only moving a few miles a day. The countryside there has enough of a surplus to support her easily. She’s started trying to recruit. In the name of the Prahbrindrah Drah. The Prince and his sister are showing themselves off.”
I had a feeling they would not sell well in those parts. That was territory that had been conquered by the Black Company in Taglios’ name. “What about Booboo?”
“Almost up to the Protector’s picket line now. Sticking to the Rock Road. The Black Hounds have instructions to make sure she gets caught.”
Lady grumped, “I thought she was caught already. That she was a prisoner.”
“That’s true. But right now she seems content to have it that way. I understand that her guards aren’t nearly as attentive to her security as they ought to be.”
Having read Sleepy’s Annals I was not surprised. Booboo seemed capable of having a mind-numbing impact on nearby male-type people.
“Then that’s something you need to let my sister know. Otherwise she could get a surprise that would leave all of us unhappy.”
We were approaching the Nijha wall. I said, “You experts ought to give this place the once-over. See if our bitty old buddy left any evidence behind.” That earned me frowns and scowls. Here came a chance to rest and I was talking about more work. Not for me but for them. I changed the subject and asked Lady, “You said Sleepy burned the Books of the Dead? The real ones? You were a direct witness?”
“I was a witness through the white crow. She burned all three of them. Shivetya himself has their ashes. He’s been having Baladitya dispose of them a pinch at a time by having them carried away by anyone who’s traveling the plain.”
Tobo said, “I moved a lot of them back when Suvrin and I were exploring the plain. What’s up?”
“An old man natural’s curiosity, I guess. Everyone, and the Deceivers seemed to agree, thinks the Daughter of Night—or whoever inherits her job if she fails—will have to have the Books of the Dead to complete the rituals of the Year of the Skulls. No books, no resurrection. Right?”
I did not get an answer. There was no answer anyone could give. In actual fact nobody really knew. Possibly not even my befuddled daughter or poor old Deceiver and now very dead Narayan Singh.
Lady stipulated, “The old witch is still in there trying, isn’t she?”
Lady and Tobo found nothing of interest at the Nijha post. Goblin had not shed his skin or left any secret Deceiver hex signs. He had just started running while the getting was good, as soon as somebody realized that he might be responsible for Narayan’s murder.
Uncle Doj rejoined us at Nijha. So did some stragglers who had accumulated there. Sleepy would not have much trouble with desertions. These men knew no one outside the Company and spoke not a word of Taglian or any other local language.
With the stragglers added we would number more than a hundred when we resumed traveling. Of the original group we lacked only Spook and Panda Man, who had been awarded the dubious honor of staying behind to watch the shadowgate.
Once she finished looking for other evidence, Lady cornered Doj. “Where’s the body?”
“Huh?” The old swordmaster was baffled.
“Narayan Singh. What did you do with his corpse?”
Tobo and I exchanged looks. That question had not occurred to either of us. It might be a good idea to make doubly certain just who had died. Narayan Singh had been a veritable Prince of Deceivers, beloved of Kina.
One of the injured men left to garrison Nijha volunteered, “They threw him in the old cesspit, then filled it with dirt and rock from the new latrine, ma’am. Which was built according to your specifications, sir.”
I have had a reputation as a martinet along those lines ever since I joined the Company. And when health, hygiene and waste disposal are handled my way the Company tends to experience significantly fewer disease problems than do people who do not do things my way. It remains impossible to reason with some men, though, so I just give orders and make sure they are carried out.
“Dig him up,” Lady directed. And when nobody rushed to grab up picks and shovels she began to glow darkly and swell up and even to develop fangs.
Then people started looking for tools.
“That was interesting,” I told her.
“Been working on it since I ambushed myself and that tree. It doesn’t take much effort or power but it ought to be visually impressive.”
“It definitely was that.”
The exhumation satisfied Lady. There was a body. It resembled Narayan Singh, even including his bad leg. And it was unnaturally well preserved considering where it had been buried.
“Well?” I asked after she had gone so far as to open the body up. I do not know what she expected to find.
“It does seem to be him. Considering who he served, who seemed to love him, I was almost certain there wouldn’t be a body. Or it wouldn’t be Narayan’s if there was.”
The truth was, she had not wanted it to be Narayan. She did not want Singh evading her vengeance this easily.
“There’s no dramatic unity in real life,” I told her. “Save it up and take it out on Goblin.”
She offered me a wicked look.
“I mean on the thing that’s taken possession of Goblin.” The real Goblin would be my oldest surviving friend.
She carved Narayan’s corpse into little pieces. She left a trail of those for the bugs and buzzards over the next several days. But the man’s head, heart and hands she kept in a jar of pickling brine.
I did not ask why or if she had a plan. Narayan’s escape had left her in much too black a mood for small talk.
A couple of times I did overhear her cursing the fact that there were no great necromancers left in the world.
She would call Narayan back from paradise or hell to make him pay for taking our daughter.
The smaller Voroshk girl, the captive, came out to see us. In not bad Taglian she told us, “Sedvod just died.” She stared at Tobo the whole time.
I went to check. The sick boy had, indeed, passed on. And I still had no idea why.
I figured the Goblin thing probably deserved the blame.
The Nether Taglian Territories:
Along the Viliwash
Sleepy surprised us all. She was irked about us dealing with Soulcatcher but she made no great fuss. “This situation isn’t the one I prepared for. Tobo. I trust you’re taking steps to prevent the Protector from observing what we’re doing.”
“She sees what we want her to see. Which means she doesn’t see what we’re doing, only what our mutual enemies are doing.”
Which was not much on Booboo’s part. Despite her best effort to vanish during the night after her captors first encountered Soulcatcher’s pickets, she remained a captive. She would be turned over to Soulcatcher herself within a few days.
Goblin, moving faster than the girl’s captors were, had been gaining ground fast and Tobo now placed him only about thirty miles behind. I suggested that he would be more trouble to Soulcatcher than Booboo ever could.
Thinking out loud, I said, “I wonder if this is how myths get started.”
People looked at me like they were not sure they wanted to know what that was all about.
I explained. “Here we’ve got a bunch of people visiting strange places most people couldn’t get to even if they wanted. We’ve got close relatives squabbling and even trying to murder each other.”
“That’s reaching,” Murgen said.
“I like it,” Tobo said. “A thousand years from now they’ll remember me as the god of storms. Or something.”
“Or something?” his father asked. “How about the small god who makes littler rocks out of runty stones?”
Earlier Tobo had gotten caught making stones explode. He had been doing it for the sheer joy of watching them shatter and hearing the fragments ricochet. He was embarrassed. But you have got to have fun once in a while. Today’s Company is not nearly as much fun as it was when I was young.
I snickered. “We marched forty miles every day. Uphill all the way. In the snow. When we weren’t in the swamp.”
“Thought I’d start practicing for when I get really old. How do you make rocks explode?”
“Oh. That’s easy. You just kind of feel what they’re like inside. You find the water. You make it hot enough and the rock goes boom.”
Find the water. Inside a rock. And the rock goes boom. Right. I had to ask. I changed the subject. “How are those Voroshk kids doing?” Despite everything he had to do, Tobo found time to spend with our captives.
It was amazing how much the kid could handle in a day.
I could recall when life worked that way for me. Back when we were marching up all those hills. With cold, wet feet.
“Uncle Doj has them speaking Taglian like they were born in the delta, in the shadow of the temple of Ghanghesha.”
“Excellent.” He was poking fun, of course.
“They’re picking up the language. Shukrat and Magadan could get by now. Arkana is having trouble but she’s catching on. None of them are mourning Sedvod. Gromovol, the brother, is being stubborn. He doesn’t like not being the only conduit. He likes to be in control. Of something. But even he is making progress.”
“Gromovol is the pain in the ass, then? Which’re which with the other names? I haven’t heard any names before.”
“That’s because they hadn’t given up hope that their family would rescue them from their own dumb mistake. Even more than the Gunni do, they believe their names can be used against them. There’s a connection with their souls.”
“Which means that Shukrat and Magadan and whatnot won’t actually be real names.”
“They’re real public names. Work names. Just not true names.”
“I’ve never understood the concept but it’s one I’ve learned to live with. Which one is which?”
“Shukrat is the shorter girl. The one who crashed.”
“The one who’s working up a crush on you.”
Tobo ignored me. The ability to ignore seems to be coupled with a talent for sorcery. “Arkana is the ice queen. Which I definitely would not mind melting. Magadan is the quiet guy.”
Magadan, in my estimation, would be the dangerous one. If he so chose. He observed and studied and prepared. He did not bluster or invoke the threat of powers from a world away. “Did you tell them what happened at the shadowgate?”
“They didn’t want to believe me but they did enough to decide to introduce themselves. Enough to conclude that they’re likely to be a part of our world for a long time to come.”
“You did remind them that that’s what they asked for?”
“Sure. Shukrat even managed to joke about it. She has a great sense of humor. For a girl. Who didn’t ask to be here.”
Considering the females in his experience I could see how he might think a feeble sense of humor was a sex-linked characteristic. Only Iqbal Singh’s wife ever smiled and joked. And Suruvhija’s lot was the poorest of all the women associated with the Company.
“But all you can see is long legs, long blonde hair, big blue eyes and a monumental set of gazoombies.” Once we got up into settled country we needed to find the kid a whore. Twenty years old and never been laid.
On the other hand, harnessing all that energy the way we were right now had a lot to recommend it. We were not headed into an era where we could let our most talented wizard be distracted by nature.
Maybe we should find him a traveling companion.
I could just imagine what his mother would say about that.
“The future,” I said, raising my hand as though holding a drink. “We have to get Swan and Blade set up in the brewing business.”
Murgen said, “That’s what I miss most about One-Eye, too.”
“Here’s a thought. Maybe Goblin will get so thirsty he’ll shake Kina off and set up a still.”
I had to mention Goblin. That took the pleasure out of the moment.
Everybody who remembered the old Goblin had to deal with those memories each time the man’s name came up. Those memories were going to be treacherous if ever we confronted the revenant himself. Even if they caused just a moment’s hesitation.
If we had to go after Goblin hard we would be better served to send people from Hsien. They would not be sentimental about him. Their exposure was entirely hearsay.
I did not want to hasten the day.
I asked, “Tobo, now that we’ve slowed down, what are we going to do about the Howler?” An entire infantry company had been saddled with that sleeping sorcerer from the day he and Longshadow had been brought up out of the earth. That company had no other duties but transporting and protecting the Howler. “Something’s got to be. If she don’t wake him up and make a deal we’d better kill him. Before Soulcatcher figures out that we’ve got him and steals him so she can use him herself.”
I was worried that Sleepy was not taking the Howler seriously enough. She had no experience of him. Not enough to understand just how dangerous he could be, which was just as dangerous as Soulcatcher. And he was crazier than she was.
The Howler was no dedicated enemy of ours though he had worked against us far more often than otherwise. His nature seemed to make him a follower. He gravitated toward where the strength seemed to be. He was so powerful I would prefer he was with us rather than not. Or, if not with us, dead.
“There’s a certain amount of debate. Sleepy would rather just leave him for the jackals. Mom would, too, only she keeps having these premonitions. You know how big premonitions are with the women of the Ky family.”
“One got your mom and dad together.”
“No use crying over spilled milk,” Willow Swan said. “How about somebody tells Sleepy if she’s not going anywhere in a hurry why don’t we set down in one place? It’s a pain to set up and tear down every day if we’re not going anywhere.”
Our northward drift did allow for a lot of camp time. I used it to work on these Annals. Lady used it to get several wagon loads of large bamboo poles collected so she could begin manufacturing a new generation of fireball projectors. Tobo used it to teach the Voroshk youngsters. I joined him occasionally. The boy Magadan seemed to have a healing touch. We needed to nurture that.
Arkana remained the ice queen. Shukrat grew more relaxed with us. And Gromovol decided he wanted to become my buddy—in support of whatever scheme was shaping up inside of him.
Although he did not spread it around, Tobo figured out the basics of riding the Voroshk flying post. At least, a particular flying post. I suspect Shukrat helped him. It was her post he sneaked out in the middle of the night, indulging all of a young man’s joy in adventure.
The Nether Taglian Territories:
The Manor at Gharhawnes
Ten days into the Amble on the Viliwash we had traveled barely forty-five miles. A third of those we covered in a single day when it became apparent, to the amazement of all, that there really were people in the Taglian Territories disinclined to celebrate liberation from the Protector’s reign. A coalition of regional nobles and priests tried to resist, then tried to hole up in a stout manor called Gharhawnes. In the field Tobo used his talents to weaken their will to resist, before the soldiers got a real chance to beat up on them.
We surrounded the manor at dusk. Fires sprouted. The outer wall of the manor house seemed to boil with a dark mist as the Unknown Shadows stormed the place.
Results did not become obvious for hours. Tobo’s friends preferred to be indirect. And preferred the cover of darkness.
We had the place surrounded. Our bonfires sent harmless shadows scampering over the manor walls. I told Sleepy, “This place looks nice and comfy, Captain. We’re in no hurry. We could hang around here for a while. Long enough to learn its name.”
She was underwhelmed by the suggestion. “Gharhawnes.”
“Gharhawnes is the name of the place, you idiot.”
“And it’s the best place we’ve seen. Maybe we should set up the prince and his sister here. Sort of get them back into the swing of being royalty.” The gods knew they got no practice with us savages. We just dragged them hither and yon like so much duffel, in case they became useful someday.
“Don’t you have some writing to do? Or a boil to lance?”
“Not at the moment. I’m all yours and full of advice.”
Before she could put together a suitable reply without using profanity, a party of several men slipped out of the manor, bringing women and children with them.
I had a feeling our camp looked pretty impressive.
It was supposed to look like a horde was on the move.
Tobo and his parents materialized. The boy said, “The haunts are working faster than I thought they would.” He extended an arm, hand palm downward, then whispered in what sounded like the language of Hsien. A moment later a cry of rage came from a high manor window where a pair of archers had been about to snipe at the defectors. One somehow managed to fall through the opening.
The Captain said, “Have those things start whispering that anyone who surrenders before dawn will be allowed to take their possessions with them. They’ll even be allowed to go home unharmed if they take an oath to the Prahbrindrah Drah. Captives taken after sunrise tomorrow will be conscripted into our forced labor battalions.”
We did not have forced labor battalions. But those were a part of siege warfare and were often the fate of prisoners of war and peasants who were insufficiently fleet of foot. The threat was plausible. And the Black Company had a long reputation for being unimpressed by caste, noble birth, or priestly status, too.
Once it was clear we would provide covering fire to defectors a flow developed. Usually the soldiers set to keep deserters from using the posterns were the first to come over.
The people engineering the resistance were not popular with their conscripted followers.
So some folks wanted to see the Protectorate continue but the people who had to do the work were not interested. The few I got to talk to had no real convictions in the matter. Who ruled made little difference in their lives. But it was getting on toward harvest time.
One of the great truths was getting some exposure to the light here.
Our men entered the manor early next morning. I was still asleep. Tobo’s pets spread confusion. Our men cleaned up behind them. None of our people died. There were few wounds of any consequence. Sleepy felt magnanimous. She turned most of the men of standing over to the Radisha and her brother for judgment. Only those Tobo identified as irredeemable creatures of the Protector faced the Company justice.
“Spread that around,” Sleepy told Tobo. “Make it sound a lot bigger than it was.”
“Tonight little people will be whispering in the ears of sleepers everywhere within two hundred miles.”
The Nether Taglian Territories:
That far Taglian province shared religions with the rest of the Taglian Territories, with the majority being Gunni. It’s language was closely akin to that spoken around Dejagore. Sleepy could manage the dialect with only a little practice.
What I called a manor house was really more like a village completely enclosed within a single blockish structure. The principal building material was an unbaked brick kept carefully plastered so it would not wash away in the rain.
Inside there was an open central square with both cisterns and a good well. Stables and workshops opened on it all around. The rest of the structure was a warren of halls and rooms where people obviously lived and worked and ran shops and lived life as though the place was indeed some sort of city.
“It’s a termite mound,” Murgen told me.
“The Prince and his sis ought to feel right at home. It’s as bad as the Taglian Palace. On a miniature scale.”
“I want to know what they ate. The smell is overpowering.” The odors of spices clogged every hallway. But that was true in every Taglian city and town. These odors were just an alien mix.
Thai Dei caught up. He had actually allowed Murgen out of his sight for several minutes. Maybe he was slowing down, too. He brought a message. “Tobo says to tell you that Sleepy has decided to take a chance on wakening the Howler.”
You could tell Thai Dei was worried because that was one of the longest speeches I ever heard the man make.
Sleepy chose to undertake the awakening with full pomp, ceremony and drama. Following an evening meal we gathered in what had been a temple hall, when everyone was rested, well fed and supposedly relaxed. The place of worship was poorly lit and boasted far too many multiheaded and multiarmed idols in its corners to lead me to consider it strictly benign.
None of the idols represented Khadi but all Gunni deities make me uncomfortable.
I was present in a demigod role myself. I appeared as the creepy armored monster Widowmaker. I do not enjoy the role.
My dearly beloved, on the other hand, just loves any excuse to assume the guise of Lifetaker. For a few hours she can wear the ugly armor and pretend that these are still the good old days when she was something much more wicked than this Lifetaker thing is supposed to be now.
Our role in the proceeding was to sit there in the gloom with colorful worms of sorcery slithering over us. We were supposed to look intimidating while others got the real work done.
Tobo just came as Tobo. Hell, he did not bother putting on a clean shirt and trousers. But he did bring his Voroshk students.
The rest of the audience consisted of senior officers and regional notables who had come in, mainly, to assess the Prahbrindrah Drah and to discover what they would need to do to weather our presence.
Conquerers do come and go.
The hall was crowded. All those bodies produced a lot of heat. And I was inside that armor, sitting motionless on a stool behind the action, One-Eye’s black spear held upright in my right hand. That was supposed to be my entire part.
It mostly involved not fainting in front of witnesses.
Sleepy had set the stage pretty well, with the low lighting and enough advance rumormongering to make the audience understand that the Howler was both foaming-mouth mad and yet a sorcerer who was as powerful as the Protector.
Poor Howler. Despite his part in the Shadowmaster wars he was almost forgotten now.
The Voroshk, I noted, eventually settled right up front. Tobo was treating them as good friends, particularly the well-rounded, freckled little blonde. He chattered with her until Sleepy growled and told him to get on with it.
Even I felt a little let down by the awakening. Tobo indulged in no mumbo jumbo and no showmanship. He felt that his part was no more exciting than working in a stable.
But his effort was more impressive to thoughtful minds. A few people, maybe the right people, understood that Tobo was so good he could make something big look routine.
I thought the boy’s efforts said a lot about his character, too. His ego did not need a lot of feeding.
I noted that three out of four Voroshk got it right away. Gromovol actually got it, too, but he did have an ego disease.
Tobo freed Howler from his long trance in a matter of minutes.
I do not know the whole story. You never do with their kind of people. But I do know that Howler is ages older even than Lady. He was one of the men who helped her first husband, the Dominator, build the Domination, an empire that collapsed into the northern dust about the time the original Black Company crossed over from Khatovar. Howler’s pain and deformity are a legacy of that time. So is the kind of thinking that led Soulcatcher to proclaim herself Protector.
The woman does not have the obsessive focus and drive necessary to create a true replica of that old empire of darkness.
I never have seen Howler outside the layered rags he wears, rags so long unchanged that a whole ecology has developed between the Howler’s skin and the surrounding world. It includes numerous invertebrates, molds, mildews and a variety of small green plants.
The Howler is smaller than Goblin or One-Eye ever were but Lady insists that that was not always the case.
When Tobo finished, the almost shapeless little ragbag sucked in a deep breath, then let out one of the shrieks that had given him his name. It seemed an egalitarian mix of agony and despair. I shivered despite the heat. It had been a long time since I had heard one of those cries. I could have waited a lot longer to hear this one.
The little wizard sat up.
Swords made metallic sounds. Spearheads dropped. Several of the half dozen existing, new-production fireball projectors swung to point Howler’s way.
But he did nothing more. He was at least as disoriented as the worst of the rest of us when he awakened.
Tobo signalled. A man stepped forward with a pitcher of water. Howler would be fiercely thirsty. He would drink as much as he was allowed for the next couple of days. The first few of us to be awakened four years ago had made ourselves sick drinking too much water.
We learned to ration.
Howler wanted water by the gallon, too.
He did not get it.
He opened his mouth. A terrible howl came out. He could not control that frightful habit.
As rationality returned the little wizard looked around and was not pleased with his situation. He did not recognize anyone immediately. He asked, “How long has it been?” He used a tongue of the north so ancient no one but Lady spoke it. She translated into the language of Hsien, adding, “Right now he thinks he’s been resurrected into a whole new age.”
I suggested, “Break his heart fast. We don’t have time to waste.”
Howler asked questions again, in a series of languages, trying to elicit an understandable response.
I watched him wilt as he began to acknowledge the possibility that he had been asleep so long that the nations of his own age had been forgotten. But he was not entirely numb mentally. Though they differed in detail from the originals he soon recognized the armor Lady and I wore. And recalled who was who. He addressed himself to Lifetaker. The language he chose was an old one that they had shared in another age. There had been a time when I could read it, written, but could only guess at the meaning of the spoken words.
Just when everyone started to relax he let rip another bone-chilling shriek.
Lady announced, “Howler sees the general situation. Once he’s had a little more explained I think he’ll be amenable to an alliance.”
I used the language of Hsien to respond. “Howler has been part of my life most of my life. And all that time he’s been one of the people trying to kill me. I don’t think I can be real comfortable having him on my side.”
“Well, that would be stupid, wouldn’t it? We don’t have to trust him, darling. The Unknown Shadows will keep him trustworthy.”
Of course. “And you do remember his true name. Which you could pass along to Tobo.”
“If I have to.”
I nodded, thinking it might be a damned good idea for her to tell Tobo right away. Because the Howler was not the sort to be shy, reluctant or slow about eliminating a threat.
Howler let rip another terrible cry.
Sleepy had begun to simmer because she did not know what was going on.
Lady talked to the Howler about our situation while I told the Captain what was going on.
The Howler howled. There was some passion in this cry. He did not like the situation at all. But he had been there before and my sweetie was amply blunt in making it clear that there would be only one other choice available.
One reason the Howler had become the Howler was his powerful aversion to death. Nor did he have any reason to love Soulcatcher, who had buried him in a hope that that would last forever. And who had played him cruelly a time or two farther in the past.
The little sorcerer howled again.
In the language of Hsien I wondered aloud, “Tobo, do you think Shivetya has the power to cure this little shit’s screaming?” It really got distracting after a while.
Tobo shrugged. “Possibly.” He was not paying much attention. “I can find out.” He was trying to hear what Riverwalker was whispering to Sleepy. Riverwalker had been called away a few minutes earlier. He was back now with Suvrin and a cavalry officer named Tea Nung. Nung’s troop was supposed to have picket duty so I supposed something important had happened out there.
Sleepy nodded, said something affirmative. Riverwalker, Suvrin and Tea Nung withdrew. Sleepy started to snap something at them but whatever the thought was, it had come too late. Sleepy shifted her attention back to the matter at hand. She seemed less than totally focused now. She had developed a case of the fidgets. And she seemed to have brightened up.
She leaned over to confide something to Sahra.
Sahra was startled. Then she became smiley and conspiratorial, possibly even teasing.
The Captain did appear to be embarrassed.
Lady coughed indiscretely to cue me that it was Widowmaker’s turn to speak to our leader. So I said, “Captain, the Howler would be honored to throw in his lot with the Black Company. He’ll create flying carpets for us and he’ll help with our weapons program. I wouldn’t trust him a whole hell of a lot, though. And I’d keep him away from the Voroshk.” All this stated in the language of Hsien, so the little sorcerer would not follow.
The youngsters remained in their unhappy clump, trying to understand. Almost perky little Shukrat understood enough Taglian already to keep her companions accurately posted as to what got said in that language.
Riverwalker and Suvrin returned. A tall, handsome man accompanied them. He was dusty and obviously exhausted but he was alert. He ran an inquisitive eye over everyone. He seemed to recognize several people. He even bowed slightly to the Radisha.
Sleepy rose to greet him. There was a deference in her manner I had not seen before, though it was so subtle as to lurk on the border of imagination. Obviously this was someone she knew. But not someone she cared to announce. After a tentative clasping of hands she, Sahra, Riverwalker and a few others, including the Radisha, slipped away.
I wondered immediately if they had not done something stupid by bringing the man into a crowded hall when a meeting with him needed to be private. Yet a glance around showed me nobody buzzing. Excepting Sleepy’s cronies from her years underground in Taglios.
Might the visitor be some Company brother who had been left behind? Or some past ally?
The glance around also showed me all the Gunni idols apparently stirring. That had begun to divert the attention of the audience. Tobo was grim with concentration. He had his spectral allies hard at work.
That pretty boy had to be somebody special.
A moment later Widowmaker moved for the first time during the festivities. He stood up suddenly. The tip of his spear snapped down, pricked the rags surrounding the Howler, who had managed to stifle his screams and was in the process of beginning to ooze away.
Lifetaker’s great black sword fell an instant later, blocking his line of sight.
The Traitor General
It was deep in the night when a limping Runmust Singh dragged me out of bed. Out of a real bed. It had been ages. And this one came with a real woman in it. Runmust insisted that she had to get up, too. The Captain wanted us both.
Lady was grumbling something about restructuring the chain of command when we left our cubicle. We ran into Murgen right away. He was waiting for Thai Dei, who had not gotten a personalized wake up call. Sahra was nowhere in sight.
I asked, “When are you two going to work it out so you can go your own ways?” Thai Dei was one of very few Nyueng Bao still dedicating himself to bodyguarding.
“I don’t think that’ll happen,” Murgen said. “He doesn’t have anything else since Narayan died.”
“Ah.” Thai Dei’s son had been slain by Stranglers. Thai Dei was another who had been waiting in line to get some paybacks.
The obligation to protect Murgen had become a convenient fiction for both men. I should have recognized that a long time ago. I who have made such a big deal out of brotherhood for so many years.
Thai Dei bustled up. We set off after Runmust. I said, “Singh, you should let me take a look at that leg. It should’ve healed faster than it has.”
“It’ll mend fine once I get some real rest, sir. And I believe we expect to stay here for some time.”
What good would that do if the man refused to take the opportunity to rest?
I could have Tobo knock him into a coma.
Runmust led us to a room barely big enough to fit a dozen people. Sleepy and Suvrin, the Prahbrindrah Drah and his sister, Tobo and Sahra were there already. So was the handsome stranger.
“Sit,” Sleepy said. Then she got straight to the point. “This is Aridatha Singh.” Beside me, Lady winced, recognizing the name and thinking of her trophies. “Aridatha commands the City Battalions in Taglios. He, the Great General and Ghopal Singh, who commands the Greys, form the triumvirate who’re running Taglios while the Protector is out of town. Aridatha tells me that he and they—the Protector’s top henchmen—have decided they need to get rid of her.”
From one side, in back, Willow Swan grumbled, “Ghopal Singh is a general now? He was a damned sergeant when he worked for me.”
Aridatha responded, “The Protector prides herself on her ability to recognize outstanding talent.”
A joke of sorts had passed between the two. I guess you had to have been part of the situation to follow it.
While we sat around with our mouths hanging open, looking intelligent, Sleepy told the outsider, “These people are here to offer their advice. That’s Croaker. He was the Liberator, once upon a time. That’s Lady. That’s Murgen. They’ve all led the Company at some time. The others you’ll recall from the last time we met.” She passed over Thai Dei, which lent him an air of mystery, nor did she introduce the Prahbrindrah Drah.
I asked, “Did Mogaba send you?”
“I volunteered. Because your Captain knew me. And because your Company has no personal grievance with me.”
Lady stirred. She was willing to invent one.
Sleepy said, “It would seem that there are limits even Mogaba refuses to exceed. And Soulcatcher has managed to discover them.”
Aridatha said, “You have ancient grievances with the Great General.”
“I want you to know that he isn’t an evil man. He is an obsessed man, though his obsession has weathered away with age. He’s realized that history won’t record his name on the roll of great conquerers. There’s no longer time. He hasn’t entirely made his peace with that but he does see that it’s his own fault. Because of his untimely defection during the siege of Dejagore he has been forced to serve a procession of deranged and incompetent masters. But that’s of no moment now.”
“Between us, he, Ghopal, and I have concluded that Taglios should be spared any more torment by the Protector. She’s like a deadly rot. She’s destroying everything slowly. Even our religions and culture. And the only force able to put an end to that is the Black Company.”
Murgen suggested, “You guys could whack her yourselves. She’s not immortal. And she trusts you. As much as she trusts anybody. That gets you close enough...”
“That plan was in place even before you people resurfaced. But she’s stayed away from the city since the beginning of that crisis. Her messages to the Great General all affirm her determination to keep after you until she’s accounted for every member of the Black Company personally. She was extremely put out because so many people who were supposed to be dead started turning up alive.”
“Believe me, I know how exasperating that is,” Lady said. “For twenty years I chased the Deceiver Narayan Singh. The man had more lives than a cat.”
Aridatha caught the past tense. “Has the living saint of the Deceivers passed to his reward, then?”
“He got away from me through the only exit he had left.” Lady sounded extremely bitter. Like she thought Singh had beaten her by cheating blatantly. Her hatred of Narayan was stronger than I had suspected.
“Then that’s one distraction that no longer needs concern us.”
“Incorrect,” Sleepy said, reclaiming control. “The Daughter of Night is still out there. And Kina still hopes to bring on the Year of the Skulls. Whatever else happens, Kina and her followers still have to be managed. Tell my associates why we should trust anything you tell us, Aridatha.”
“I am, of course, damned to walk in the shadow of a man I met only once in my life, after I was a grown man, and then for only a few minutes, several years ago, in your presence. That’s the legacy of the Deceivers. The cult destroys trust. My answer is, all men should be judged by one standard: their behavior. By the deeds they do. The gesture of good faith I have to make in this instance is, I think, generous.”
Sleepy interrupted. “Aridatha has a brother who lives in Jaicur. Under an assumed name. This brother, real name Sugriva, is going to help us take the city. He’ll scout out the best gate for us to get at in the middle of the night. We’ll use it to prance in and take over before anyone can put up a fight.”
I opened my mouth to argue but stopped before anything stupid came out. Sleepy’s mind was made up. All I could do was my best to make sure everything worked out right. “Soulcatcher has an army between here and there. One that outnumbers us, I hear.”
“And one that’s little better than a rabble, according to Aridatha. Some of the poorer soldiers are armed only with hammers, pitchforks, sickles and such.”
“A guy goes away for a few decades, everything turns to shit,” I said. “I had everybody tall enough to reach his mother’s hand armed up, once upon a time. What happened to all those weapons?”
Riverwalker explained, “When the Protector took over, times got so bad that almost anybody with anything to sell sold it. Weapons were a glut on the market. The steel got forged into other things.”
“And the Protector didn’t care,” Aridatha said. “The Great General finally gave up trying to make her see the point of maintaining arsenals in peacetime. I think it won’t be long now until she understands what he was talking about.”
Sleepy told us, “It isn’t necessary to trust Aridatha or Mogaba to test Jaicur’s defenses. We’re expected to swing west toward the Naghir River. We’ll make a show of doing just that. But Blade, with the light cavalry, will split off the rear of the column and loop back around eastward. The hidden folk will find a route along which the horsemen can approach Jaicur unobserved. In the meantime, the main force will turn again and head for the Rock Road north of Jaicur. That ought to stir up an ant’s nest. And make Soulcatcher forget Jaicur completely for a few days.”
Why had Sleepy bothered calling the rest of us in? She had it all worked out already. And pretty soundly, I thought.
Tobo said, “We do have a more immediate problem than that, Sleepy. You brought General Singh in during the reanimation ceremony. And he’s been seen around camp. It’s inevitable that some of our outside visitors will be Soulcatcher’s creatures. And it’s possible one of them recognized him.”
Sleepy admitted, “I didn’t think fast enough. I’m open to corrective suggestions.”
“I’m already working on it. But I do want to warn you. I don’t think I can be a hundred percent successful in identifying them and cutting them off.”
“Then you’d better consider what would be the best way to warn the other conspirators in Taglios, hadn’t you?”
Aridatha said, “Ghopal and the Great General won’t be taken unawares. The Protector possesses no means of traveling faster than the rumor of her coming. When she heads for Taglios they’ll know before she gets there. And what she brings with her will betray her intentions.”
I nodded. The reasoning seemed sound. And you did have to be really sneaky to outfox Mogaba. Soulcatcher was not sneaky these days. She had developed the habit of just bulling straight ahead because she was the biggest power around.
Sleepy elected to assume a stance which made it look like we were just going to sit and rest. But Tobo scouted the country north of Gharhawnes in ever greater detail, sometimes even going out in person, when he went flying with Shukrat.
The two of them were getting very chummy.
In private I observed, “This is getting distinctly weird. We’re allies with Soulcatcher against our daughter and Kina. We’re allies with the traitor Mogaba against your sister. We’re allies with a demigod whose price for supporting us is that we murder him.”
Lady chuckled weakly. “You did say it has a mythic ring.”
“You know something? It’s got me scared.”
She stared at nothing, waiting for me to explain.
“Scared in a generalized way, not scared like when we’re in a fight. Scared of the shape the future might take.” I had a bad, bad feeling. Because on the surface everything looked just too marvelous for the Black Company.
With the Middle Army:
When Guests Arrived
The Goblin creature proved difficult to catch. What should have taken just a few days took two weeks and, in the end, necessitated Soulcatcher’s personal intervention—with, to her chagrin, considerable coaching from the shadowy cat thing she could never quite see and never quite ambush and bind to her own service.
In the meantime she amused herself with the girl.
The Daughter of Night was imprisoned in a cage inside Soulcatcher’s tent. That was the largest and most ostentatious tent in the midway camp. The girl had been stripped naked, then had been decorated with a variety of chains and charms. She would not be guarded by or even approached by anyone male. Soulcatcher knew only too well how men could be manipulated by the women of her blood.
Though the girl did not seem interested in listening, Soulcatcher said, “To this day I’m not quite sure how you and that old man managed to get away from me. But I have some suspicions. And it won’t happen again. You’re far too important to your mother to be running around loose.” The voice Soulcatcher selected was annoyingly pedantic.
The girl did not respond. She was alone in her own reality. This was not her first time as a prisoner of someone who planned to use her. She could be patient. Her moment would come. Someone would slip up. An impressionable guard would be assigned. Something. Somewhere, sometime, she would have an opportunity to deceive someone into loving her long enough to want to set her free.
The girl’s continued indifference pricked Soulcatcher into trying to hurt her with news she had wanted to reserve. “He’s dead, you know. Your old man. Narayan Singh. He was strangled. They threw his body in a cesspit.”
That blow did strike home. But after an initial flinch and a brief, black look the Daughter of Night lowered her eyes and settled back into her pose of patient indifference.
Soulcatcher laughed. “Your freak Goddess has abandoned you.”
To which the girl offered her only spoken response since her capture. “All their days are numbered.” Which was like a slap in Soulcatcher’s face. It was one of those slogans Black Company-inspired graffitists had used to taunt her for years.
Soulcatcher snatched a whip, flailed away without doing the girl much harm. The cage itself prevented that.
Someone shouted for Soulcatcher’s attention from outside the entrance to her tent. In that respect her soldiers were well-trained. They did not bother her with trivia.
Responding, Soulcatcher found a gaggle of soldiers with a dead man on a crude litter. The corpse was twisted. Its features were severely distorted. Raindrops slid off the ruined face like tears. “You,” she said, picking a man. “Tell it.” A cavalryman covered with mud, he must have been on picket duty.
“This man came up from the south. He gave the proper recognition signs. He told us that he was bringing you important news about traitors but wouldn’t say anything else.”
“He arrived healthy? How did he get this way?”
“Just before we got to camp he stood up in his stirrups and screamed. His horse reared and threw him. After he hit the ground he shuddered and twitched and made gurgling noises trying to scream. And then he died.”
“Traitors?” No doubt there would be many of those to pay off before this played out. These situations brought them out from under every rock and bush.
“That’s all he said, ma’am.”
“Bring him inside. It’s possible I can still get a little something out of him. Be careful where you track your mud.” She stepped aside, even held the flap for the soldiers. Reluctantly, a few found courage enough to bring the body forward. Soulcatcher’s soldiers shared a common opinion that it was not good to catch the Protector’s eye. These stepped carefully, leaving as little mud and moisture as possible.
In a merry young voice Soulcatcher observed, “You must all have mothers.”
Soulcatcher had the corpse partially stripped, disassembling its apparel thread by thread, when there was another disturbance outside the tent entrance. Irked, she responded, hoping this would be the news she had been awaiting so long: that Goblin had been captured at last.
As she was about to open up she caught motion from the corner of her eye. She spun. For an instant she thought she glimpsed a tiny man, maybe eight inches tall, ducking down behind the corpse.
The racket outside remained insistent.
It was not the news she wanted. The soldiers there—they always came in groups—pushed one of their number forward. “A courier just came in, ma’am. The enemy is on the move again. Westward.”
Mogaba had called it right, then. “When did this start?”
“The courier will be with you in a minute, ma’am. With dispatches. He had some physical needs he couldn’t put off before he could see you. But the command staff insisted you get the main news immediately.”
In a casual tone, Soulcatcher observed, “The drizzle seems to be letting up.”
“Get that courier here as fast as possible.”
The reports from the south did indeed have the rested Black Company forces moving westward but not on the track previously anticipated. Part of their journey would have to be made without the benefits of roads, over rough terrain.
Soulcatcher said, “They must be striking for Balichore by the shortest route. Why? Can anyone tell me what’s special about Balichore?” Soulcatcher controlled a sprawling empire she knew only a little about.
After an extended silence someone tentatively suggested, “That’s the farthest upriver heavy barge traffic travels. Cargos have to be portaged and loaded on smaller boats or onto wagons.”
Someone else recalled, “There’s some kind of problem with rocks in the river. A whatchamacallit. Cataract. The Liberator once ordered a canal built around it but the project was abandoned...”
A couple of pokes in the ribs were necessary before the speaker recalled who was responsible for the neglect of public works in recent times.
Soulcatcher did not respond, however. She concentrated on the transport idea.
A large portion of the Company had barged up the Naghir River after fleeing Taglios five years ago. Could this new Captain be in a rut? Or was she thinking she could catch Taglios by surprise, from the river side, where there were no walls and no defensive works and the peoples of those poorer quarters tended toward nostalgic recollections of the Prahbrindrah Drah, the Radisha and even the Liberator.
Soulcatcher asked, “Does anyone happen to know how long it takes to get a barge down the Naghir, through the delta channels, and upriver to Taglios?” She knew barges manned by veteran crews traveled day and night, unlike soldiers afoot or on horseback.
Another disturbance at the entrance arose before anyone produced a reliable answer.
The drizzle had ended, she discovered. Yet the men demanding attention were covered with mud. And they had brought her a present.
“For me? And it’s not even my birthday.”
Goblin was a present who looked way the worse for use. He was bound and gagged. His head and hands were wrapped in rags as well. His captors had been determined to take no chances.
Soulcatcher gloated. “He stumbled into one of my traps, didn’t he?”
“Yes he did, ma’am.”
There were hundreds of those out there, taking many forms. Soulcatcher had begun to put them out as soon as it had become evident that the new, improved Goblin could evade the best efforts of her soldiers. “He’s still alive, isn’t he?” If he was dead her concern that he might have allowed himself to be caught would slide down her list of worries.
“Your instructions were perfectly clear, ma’am.”
Soulcatcher memorized that man’s face. He was mocking her behind a mask of rectitude. She preferred open defiance. That she could crush without mystifying anyone. “Take the mask and gag off. Set him up over here.” The Daughter of Night, Soulcatcher noted, was interested enough to forget to hide her interest.
She could not know the little wizard’s significance, could she?
No. Impossible. The girl was just doing what she did whenever anything happened inside the tent. She paid attention because she might learn something useful.
Soulcatcher waited until she judged that Goblin was sufficiently recovered. She told him, “Your former brothers really don’t like turncoats, do they?”
Goblin stared at her with eyes colder, deeper and more remote than those of the Daughter of Night. He did not reply.
She stepped closer. Her mask was just a foot from his face. She purred, “They came to me for help settling your account.”
Goblin twitched but remained silent. He did try to look around.
He smiled when he glimpsed the Daughter of Night.
Soulcatcher said, “They told me all about it, little man. They told me what you are now. They expect me to just kill you because of what you did to my foot. They really just want you dead.” She rubbed her gloved hands together. “But I think I’m going to be a lot cruder.” She giggled.
“All their days are numbered,” Goblin said in a whisper. The voice borrowing the taunt only vaguely resembled that of the man who had gone down into the earth to challenge the Dark Mother.
“Some more closely than others.” Soulcatcher’s voice was old and emotionless. Her right hand lashed out, sliced across Goblin’s face. Blades a half inch long on the ends of her fingers destroyed his eyes and the bridge of his nose. He shrieked, at first as much in surprise as in pain.
The Protector turned on the men who had brought the prisoner in. “Bring me another cage like the one the brat is in.” The cage did in fact exist already. Such had been her certainty that she would capture Goblin.
The blacksmith had orders to create three more, suitable for housing her sister, her sister’s husband, and that treacherous Willow Swan.
Later, in Taglios, she meant to work with a glassblower to bottle them all so they could be displayed outside the entrance to her palace. They would be kept alive and fed until they drowned in their own ordure.
Such was the fate that the Dominator often bestowed upon his most important enemies, in his time.
Tobo and the Voroshk
The Howler certainly kept busy. He completed his first functional four-passenger flying carpet two days after the soldiers marched westward. Gharhawnes seemed deserted, though there were enough of us around to bloody a bunch of noses the morning the former tenant took a notion to steal his home back.
Sleepy had a dozen carpets on order, from single-rider scouts to a monster she hoped would carry twenty soldiers. I do not know who she expected to fly them. Only Howler and Tobo—and, possibly, the Voroshk—had the power to manage the things.
I insisted that we have a couple of modest-sized carpets first. Those should not take too long to make and would be the size most useful to us right away. And since I was in charge of the left-behinds and the Dejagore strike I got what I wanted. Well, I got the one carpet.
Tobo had the flying post thing figured out, too. Both Shukrat and Arkana seemed eager to get along now. One or the other would allow Tobo to borrow her post when he wanted to run out to visit Sleepy, which he did by night so he would not be seen from the ground. I never felt comfortable when he did that. We had too many potentially unpleasant and unfriendly people back here in the manor. Including a lot of hostages from the leading families of the region.
Both Magadan and Gromovol were increasingly determined not to be won over, each for his own reasons. I told Magadan, “I’d be tempted to send you two home just so I don’t have to worry about what’s going on behind my back,” I was not worried, really. Tobo’s supernatural friends saw everything.
Magadan told me, “I don’t want to go home. Home no longer exists. I want to be free.”
“Sure. You Voroshk showed what you can do when you’re free. I’ve spent my life killing people like you. That’s people who believe it’s their destiny to make slaves out of people like me. I’m in a war with another one of them right now. I’m not about to cut you loose and let you start making peoples’ lives miserable, too.”
None of which was absolutely true but it did sound good. And Magadan bought it. Some. The part that really was true. That I would kill him before I turned him loose on the world.
That was the moment when he decided he might want to go home after all. From then on he brought that possibility up each time we crossed paths. The hidden folk said he was sincere. He was trying to get the other kids to go along with swapping what knowledge they had for an escort back across the place of glittering stone.
Lady did not believe it. She thought we should put him and Gromovol down because of the trouble they could cause.
My sweetie has a very direct approach to problem-solving.
Sometimes I do find what little conscience I retain a damnable handicap.
Howler, though, did successfully work his way out of the top ten on my shit list. Tobo’s appeal to Shivetya had resulted in word from the golem saying he did have the ability to intervene in Howler’s screaming and shrinking problems. Shivetya did not have much of a reputation as a liar so even Howler took him at his word. After which the smelly little wizard became extremely cooperative.
Though we still had no cause to trust his long run intentions. Nor he any call to trust ours, either.
Lady cornered Tobo. “We have a dangerous situation, here. And like a pet cobra it’s going to bite us someday. We have to do something.”
The boy sounded puzzled. “What’re you talking about? Something about what?”
“Those Voroshk. They aren’t as strong or as bright as we first thought but there are four of them and only one of you.”
“But they’re not going to...”
“Pardon me for being an old cynic,” I said. “Magadan keeps telling me, in so many words, that he wants to be anywhere that isn’t here with us. And there’s at least the implication that he’ll do whatever it takes if we don’t help him go home. And Gromovol is going to be trouble eventually because his personality requires it. If you go out to visit Sleepy or just on a flying date the rest of us are stuck here with no better hope than the Howler.”
“And speaking of flying,” Lady said, “don’t you ever go out with both of those girls again. Hush! You’re only familiar with the women you’ve grown up around. I’m telling you right now that Arkana is exactly like Magadan. But she has one more weapon than he does and she means to use it to cloud your mind.”
“Shukrat I’m not sure about. There’s a chance Shukrat is exactly what she seems.”
I agreed. The kid was likable. And according to Tobo the hidden folk agreed. They offered no reason not to trust her.
Tobo was not used to arguing with anybody but his mother, even when he thought he was right. He did not want to think ill of Arkana but would not fight us.
Lady demanded, “So how do we make sure of them? You have to think of something before we move against Dejagore. We’ll be scattered, distracted and extremely vulnerable then. And because you spend time with the girls, out amongst the rest of us, all four will know what’s going on. They can plan accordingly.”
Again Tobo did not get a word in before I said, “I would be.”
Lady reminded him, “You’ve never been a prisoner.”
“Now there’s a joke. I was born a prisoner. A prisoner of a prophecy by an old woman who died years before I was born. A prisoner of the expectations of all you people. Gods, I wish Hong Tray was wrong and I could’ve been a normal kid.”
“There aren’t any normal kids, Tobo,” I told him. “Just kids who fake it better than the rest of us do.”
“And that name. Tobo. That was my baby name. Why does everybody still call me that? Why didn’t we ever have a ceremony to give me a grown-up name?”
Nyueng Bao do that. And Tobo was years past the appropriate birthday.
Lady told him, “You’ll have to take that up with Uncle Doj. Meantime, the other thing needs addressing right now. Blade is moving already. In three more days Sleepy will curl back to the northeast and it’ll be too late to stop anything. I want to be sure that we won’t get stabbed in the back just when things get exciting.”
An hour after we nagged him Tobo asked Shukrat to go flying. He borrowed Arkana’s log. Arkana was not pleased. When an hour later she told me Magadan had said he did not mind if she used his post to join Shukrat and Tobo I told her, “But I mind. If you need to talk to Tobo do it when he gets back.”
Arkana was the brightest of the Voroshk. She recognized that things were tightening up.
When Tobo did return he stayed just long enough to round up Magadan. He took Magadan flying. It was the first time Magadan had been aloft since he had entered our keeping. He did not appear excited, which I would have expected.
They returned within a half hour. Magadan’s hand-me-downs, appropriated from Gharhawnes’ former occupants, were ragged. He looked like he had been in a fight and the other guy had kicked his butt. A good long way.
Tobo gave instructions for Magadan to be isolated, then found Arkana and took her for a fly.
The ice queen, I noted, had replaced her confiscated robes with native garb that served her to considerable visual advantage.
“Down, boy!” Lady said.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t run into her before I met you, isn’t it?”
That earned me a not entirely playful swat.
Arkana came back looking rougher than Magadan had. And she was not smiling.
Tobo had Arkana put in with Magadan. He collected Gromovol.
Gromovol was not interested in going anywhere with Tobo. Tobo insisted. They were not gone long. Once they returned Tobo had the Voroshk returned to their quarters. He gathered their flying posts in the main hall. Lady and I joined him.
I asked, “What was that all about?”
“I took them out and dueled with them. Except for Shukrat.”
I stopped Lady before she explained—probably at great length—how unsmart doing that could have proven. Sometimes she could fuss as much as Sahra. I said, “I’m sure there was a reason.”
“I wanted to find out just how much we really do have to fear from them.”
“They’re frauds. The only power they really have is what they draw from their post and their clothing. Without those even Shukrat isn’t as powerful as One-Eye was at the end. Gromovol is about Uncle Doj’s equal. Lady, even as weak as you are right now, you could manage any of them but Shukrat.”
I snorted. “I guess that would explain why Gromovol’s pop was anxious to get the kids back. Were most of the Voroshk limited talents? Were most of them carried by a few strong members of the clan?”
“I’d guess that’s likely. The point, though, is that for right now there’s a better chance our Voroshk will attack us with knives than with sorcery.” He looked at us, saw no obvious eagerness to embrace his theory. “Don’t you think that if they had any real power they would’ve used it to try to escape?”
I realized that he was upset. He had believed he was making friends with the Voroshk. Our worries had led him to test that and he had learned that his friends were not as close as he had hoped.
“You’re telling us we don’t have to kill them to be safe,” Lady said.
“You have the Unknown Shadows at your command and you didn’t figure this out until today?” Lady can find something to suspect in everything. I would suggest we retire and settle down somewhere where we do not have to worry all the time but she would suspect me of ulterior motives.
“I’ve thought it for a long time,” he admitted sullenly. “But the hidden folk can’t report things that they don’t hear. The Voroshk don’t discuss their weaknesses. Or much of anything else, actually. Because of their present situation nobody likes anybody very much anymore.”
I said, “I didn’t want to kill them, anyway. Maybe I’d like to thump Gromovol a little, now and then, but...”
“So that’s settled. Heck, turn them loose if you want. Once they’ve had a dose of the real world they’ll come back. Meantime, let me get to work on these things.”